One of my rugged, outdoorsy friends likes to tease me about going hunting. He knows that the only wildlife I hunt are photographic subjects. Instead of a firearm, I carry a camera. On the off chance that I hunt for food, it is the search for morel mushrooms that gives me a little thrill.
The morel mushroom is the only species of fungus that I dare to hunt because I’m not a mushroom expert or a botanist. Also, the morel is the easiest to identify. Once you’ve seen a morel or a photo of one, you’ll know what to look for.
This very delicious mushroom is a sponge-like protuberance that is anywhere from one to six inches tall. The stems and caps of the plant are hollow, and the stem is attached at the base of the cap. Its distinctive shape makes the morel the simplest, safest mushroom to identify.
They are usually found on spring days when the temperature ranges from 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In North America, morels pop up in springtime, just as the trees begin to bud. The relatively unfiltered rays of sunlight warm the soil directly. Black morels are usually found in forests or groves of trees.
Natural clues to help lead you to morels are wildflowers. If you see Dutchman’s breeches, phlox, trout lily, trillium, wild violets, or wild strawberries, you’re in the right area. The flowers don’t guarantee that morels will be nearby, they only indicate favorable conditions for the mushroom.
To find the black variety of morels, requires patience and mindfulness. They appear where wind patterns happened, by chance, to blow the spores to a favorable patch. Seasoned morel hunters know to look for patterns.
In my experience the white morels are a bit easier to discover. They are not exclusive to forests, even though they’re often found there. I’ve had good luck along fence rows, grazing meadows, floodplains and railroad tracks. Be mindful of tresspassing on railroad property and train traffic if you plan on searching along railroad tracks.
White morels tend to grow near large, old deciduous trees like ash, cottonwood, elm, or sycamore. They feed on decayed root systems of dead or dying trees. Morels have a five-year growth cycle, so keep that fact in mind when you plan to return to the same location in subsequent years.
This year, I stumbled across a morel mushroom without even trying. Each week, I mow the grassy weeds of the vacant city property next to my own yard. There is a stand of old elms along the riverbank also on that lot. I noticed a solitary morel while mowing the weeds. In fact, it was directly in front of the lawnmower’s path. I kept my eye out for others, but it turned out that it was the only one.
I took a few photographs of the morel, but didn’t harvest it. Hopefully, it will eventually eject spores and a new generation of morels will appear in the near future. At the very least, it was fun to accidentally find one of the mushrooms while taking care of a mundane chore.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes violinist Itzhak Perlman. “I’m a mushroom freak. I make a mushroom soup where I use maybe six or seven varieties, not just portobello and shiitake, but dried porcini and morels.”