The Ins and Outs of Morels: Episode 1

The Ins and Outs of Morels: Episode 1

More than any other mushrooms I get asked about Morels. Not only about growing or selling them, but the when, how and where of locating a few meals worth. So, let's sort this whole topic out together as I walk you through episode 1 of "the Ins and Outs of Morels" from an insider's perspective. I've been hunting morels practically my whole life, sold mushrooms professionally for over 5 years, and have been certified as a wild mushroom expert by the State of Michigan.

Like Ronnie Zan Zant from Lynyrd Skynyrd said, "Don't ask me no questions and I won't tell you no lies". Asking where "I got them" is going to result in a quip, something to the affect of "by a rock near a tree, might've been near water". There's a lot of secrecy surrounding the elusive and highly coveted Morel Patches and for good reason. You wouldn't tell anyone where your best hunting or fishing spots are, right? 

 Unless you're blessed with family patches that are handed down from generation to generation like treasure, you're likely gonna have to do some walking, a lot of it.

In springtime when the soil temp hits 52 plus degrees and green up begins, it's morel season. This usually coincides with your neighbor cutting their lawn for the first or 2nd time as the dandelions bloom and oak buds swell into tiny leaflets.
With Morels it's mostly all about trees; the large majority of species and subspecies are associated with trees and in particular their death. Specific host trees tend to bear more fruit in a pattern and that's where it all begins, identifying trees, their habitats and reading the tree for signs of decline.
To be dead honest it's all a luck and numbers game, but we can effectively narrow the search quickly if you follow the time tested approach of finding the trees first and looking for morels second.

Elms are historically the focus of most seekers and for good reason, no other tree is as prolific with yellow morels period. Not to say the other trees that are hosts aren't worth looking for, but a patch of elms in decline can yield big numbers quick.  If you learn only one tree to identify by the bark, leaves and shape, Elms, slippery or american are it! Similarly to Elms, Sycamore Cottonwood, Tulip Poplar, Aspen and Cedar as well as Willows also host Yellow Morels, however after a controlled burn these hosts can yield big numbers in small areas especially where they fire wasn't too hot and the soil is poor. Ash trees are often overlooked as a host, With the Ash borer ravaging the forest here in my area, it's extremely easy to see an ash tree these days from quite a distance and they do bear Morchella fruiting bodies. I do and have found Morels with Oaks and they're almost always "lone rangers" or 1 single lonely morel. Oaks are a universal host to almost all of the mushrooms we covet in summer and autumn too, which we'll get into another day.

Apple Trees, especially the old forgotten, gnarly clinging to life ones are worth inspecting for yellow morels. Matter of fact I seek these bad Apples out as the flower petals fall off because more often than not the Elms have highways beaten to them and its plenty obvious that they've been picked clean. Prior to Prohibiton, Americas libation of choice was hard cider and many a homestead and farm had orchards. However, during the crackdown, any persons farm etc who was linked to sale of hooch had their apple orchards cut down and ordered burned except for a few trees. Most of these new fields were utilized as pasture and eventually tillable acreage or they were reclaimed by the forests. So when I see an abandoned homestead with a handfull of apple trees I get excited. In many areas including where I live, the citizens responded via civil disobedience by planting apple trees along the roads on public domain for anyone in need, which loopholed the trees and provided an end around to the conflict, labeled as "common apples" they are still on public domain today. These heirloom apple trees on the side of the road are always worth taking a walk through in my opinion. Here's where this one gets real fun, the old orchards they chopped and burned still have large roots decomposing under the soil all these years later and when the soil is turned over a once in a lifetime occurence could happen, what we foragers refer to around the campfire as the "field of dreams". Basically the urban legend goes like this, "There were more morels than anyone ever saw after farmer so and so tilled the field and the whole town picked em for a week". 

Cherry, White Pine and Popple trees are known hosts of the Black Morel, which is my preferred meal when it comes to the genus Morchella. They have a thicker meatier texture due to their double side walls and a beefy flavor in my opinion.
The black morel is a trickier foe to nail down. While they can be patternable, they're much more sparse in the landscape and in general it takes more miles to find a patch. These occur weeks before the yellow morels in early spring and like a colder soil temp.

Then there is the Burn Morel; this one's tricky. It does occur outside of the Rocky Mountain Areas and for us in MI, anywhere there has been a fire with Jack Pine trees in sandly soil.. BINGO, more morels than you can shake a stick at maybe, provided it wasn't a raging infeno and a dozen other variables line up. Out West its a similar story, theres a whole facet of this world up in those mountains doing all kinds of crazy, skeezy nonsense to get those fruits to market. Matter of fact wild mushrooms make up the largest legal segment of the US economy represented in cash, two keywords are legal and cash.. Which is a whole circus that if you buy me a Dr. Pepper I'll tell ya about sometime.

As we discussed earlier in the urban legend about the "Field of Morel Dreams", soil disturbance which is often overlooked can be an important aspect that is worth cueing in on. Anytime the soil is turned over or most importantly a non nutritive layer of soil (subsoil) is placed over a nutritive layer (topsoil) it is known as casing the soil and it is a mainstay practice for mushroom farmers to get some varieties of fungi to fruit. For whatever reason, it correlates to morels and anywhere the soils disturbed is always worth a quick look if there are host trees in the area or have been in the past. I grew up in coal country, the mine tailings or spoils banks were dumped in long lines off of elevators long ago. These long parallel lines are often 30+ft high and go on for miles wide and long. The subsoil in these tailing or spoils is poor, the trees that grow on these moisture rich areas are often morel hosts. The long forgotten spoil banks with host trees of signifigant age and in the throes of death produce large amounts of fungi in a relatively small area as a result. 

Walking from low to high as you approach these host trees puts the forest floor at eye level and makes it easier to see under the brush, a walking/snake stick is handy for gently moving brush aside to look under it without bending down. Children have a better perspective since they're closer to the ground and often find many more morels than adults, they're especially helpful for picking them for you. 

Phenomenon like fault lines are the focus of some folks searches, they seek out the mapped lines and walk them looking for host trees and swear by it. Other folks  are looking for trees near grounding rods, old metal barbwire or electric fences and lightning strike sites, for whatever reason this does correlate to finding more morels and in the case of electricity has been demonstrated with other species in cultivation to improve yields when the bags containing the fungi are shocked with paddles. 

Moisture rich areas like creek banks, river bottoms, flood plains or other places where significant mounts of moss grow are the object of many would be morel seekers for good reason. Moss indicates a high moisture area in the landscape and makes it easier to see morels because they pop or stand out against the green carpet. Other plants like Mayapples, creeping charlie and chickweed often indicate the soil is apropriate for morels to be present, it's not exclusive but worth observing.

Once again we aren't just looking for trees, we are looking for the host trees that are dying or dead. Signs of decay include "trunkcation" or small shoots of lateral branches growing from the main trunk, the canopy above may show dead branches, the bark may have even slipped off the tree in places and be laying on the ground. Older, bigger gnarlier trees clinging to life are particularly helpful to locate..

This information is great for finding the first mushroom, once you DO locate it, well you'll hear all about that in Episode 2 next week.

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