Morel mushroom (Morchella) season is upon us! Many mushroom hunters are already hitting the woods, while others of us are chomping at the bit, waiting for the outside temperatures to hit the magic range that compels those tasty morsels to burst from the earth. Initially coveted for their culinary value, morels have become somewhat a staple of the spring season for outdoorsmen, as they offer a unique bonding experience some call an "Easter egg hunt for grown-ups." They've become as nostalgic as they have iconic after drawing new hunters year after year.
However, finding these spongy fungi is far from easy, as many who pursue them will walk all day and never see one, but repeated failure can simply be a product of inexperience. So, how can you, a new morel mushroom hunter, increase your odds of finding morels and save yourself the drag of coming home empty-handed and conserving your energy for productive hunts? For starters, there's a variety of environments in which morels thrive, which means you can easily eliminate less productive ground to save yourself some time. If you concentrate on these locations, you could come back with enough for the whole family.
1. South-Facing Hillsides
According to the National Library of Medicine, there are 19 species of true morels in North America: black morels, yellow morels, and gray morels. They tend to start popping up in this same order in early spring as the earth starts to rewarm itself after its long winter freeze. Fortunately for us, this is exactly when we all want to get outside.
The sun will warm the southern slopes of hillsides far more quickly than the north side, causing these edible mushrooms to making the southern slopes a hotbed early in morel mushroom season, but only where other conditions are favorable.
Bring a thermometer and check the soil temperature. If the thermometer reads between 45 and 50 degrees, you're likely in for a good day.
2. Ground Disturbed by Human or Natural Activity
Ground that's experienced disturbance from more than just some vehicles driving over it can be a great place to start. A former temporary stream bed from flooding can also trigger morels. I've hiked countless miles without coming across a single mushroom and then stumbled across a two-track trail to find mushrooms completely covering it. All those miles in the thick woods sure felt wasted when I could've cruised down an easily walkable path.
According to a study published by the United States Department of Agriculture, disturbing the soil and/or mushrooms will forcibly activate the spores, speeding up the mushrooms' reproduction.
3. Logging Areas
The University of Minnesota Extension cites woodlands or woody edges as the best environment for a successful morel mushroom hunt, as downed trees are a prime indicator of potential mushrooms. The sun's warmth is able to get to the ground unimpeded by a canopy, and there's something about dying trees--and symbiotic relationship they have with the mushrooms--that tends to attract morels.
These areas can be a real wild mushroom hunting bonanza when they've had a couple years to recover and some new growth has started.
4. Burn Sites
Places where forest fires have had their way are on everyone's hit list, especially professional morel hunters. Burn areas are similar to logged locations in that they require a year or two to become prime. There is even a map that charts the forest fires on the continent and is followed very closely by morel hunters: it's the Global Incident Map, and it can tell you what places in your area have suffered (or been blessed) from a burn.
Forest Ecology and Management, a wildlife science journal, published a study in 2016 that monitored the impact of wildfires in the Sierra Nevadas caused by droughts and over-vegetation, which suggested post-fire morel mushrooms thrived in both abundance and sustainability.
Bring extra bags when hunting such spots, unless someone else has gotten there before you.
5. Loamy Soil
The kind of soil that morels seem to prefer is rich in organic matter, with a nice mix of sand and clay. Good potting soil, you might say. Soils that are rich in calcium or lime are also conducive to good morel growth.
You could take a soil sample from an area and have it analyzed or test it yourself (soil testing kits are easy to obtain). This will give you an idea if the area you're searching is worth your time, or if it's worth sticking with it from year to year.
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6. Old Apple Orchards
There's an old former hospital orchard near where I live. Although the trees are old they still produce apples (it also includes a couple of pear trees). Part of this old orchard is mown regularly and is nicely kept up. The other half of it is ignored and overgrown. I always make sure to look for morels in the part that has reverted to a wilder state.
Morels also are fond of areas where cider presses once operated.
7. Streams and Creeks
Streams and creeks almost guarantee banks with decent moisture and soil content. If I'm trekking through the woods and come across a creek, I will invariably follow it, carefully scanning the earth for yards on either side. I've found a lot of morels in such areas.
Areas adjacent to swamps are also good for hunting morel mushrooms. One of my go-to places has some low areas that are swampy even in the driest weather. I always seem to find at least a few morels on the slightly higher ground directly adjacent to the swamps, and they can be tremendous producers on normal wet years.
8. Dying Trees
Experienced morel hunters declare that once a dying tree has lost its bark it will no longer be conducive to producing morels around it. I've found this to be true most of the time, depending on how much bark is lost. When a tree dies, it releases its sugars back into the earth, and its roots are still a water magnet. This combination attracts morels.
Of course, some trees are better attractors than others, which brings us to the next item on the list.
9. Elm, Oak, Ash, and Poplar Trees
Ash and elm trees are the two trees most commonly associated with morel mushrooms. There is unquestionably a relationship between these trees and morels, and when you come across either of them--or oak, poplar, or black locust trees--spend a little more time and look a little thoroughly. With the onslaught of the emerald ash borer, we will likely be seeing the death of more ash trees, which is bad for the trees but good for morels, at least temporarily.
To be a good morel hunter you've got to become adept at identifying trees. It's a skill that is easy to learn and will do you good in any number of ways. If you're in an area full of oak trees, make a note to return in the early autumn to check for hen of the woods or maitake mushrooms.
10. In the Pines
While deciduous are your first-class ticket to finding mushrooms, I have had pretty good luck around pine trees as well, particularly white pine trees interspersed among oaks and other hardwoods. Stands of mature pines have produced fairly consistently for me, particularly if they line a trail or road, which they often do (see disturbed ground above). One time my father and I were hunting morels in the woods all morning and we didn't find a single one. Upon returning to our cottage, in our pea-gravel driveway I suddenly spied several morels directly under the pines that lined the track. We were flabbergasted and laughed about our fortune.
Yes, morel mushrooms do have their preferences, and there are unquestionably locations that produce better than others. But remember, morels are where you find them. They will occasionally defy expectations and pop up in the most unexpected and unusual places.
Before you do anything, though, train your eyes to spot these elusive delectable gems, as it's easy for a first-timer to walk right over them without realizing it. And finally, before you pick or cook morel mushrooms learn to differentiate between true and false morels, as there are lookalikes that are actually poisonous.
Like what you see here? You can read more great articles by David Smith at his Facebook page, Stumpjack Outdoors.
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