Even for experienced mushroom hunters morels can be challenging to find. If you don’t know what you’re doing you may search ENDLESSLY with NO RESULTS! I can personally attest to it. I used to get skunked over and over again when I first started looking for morels.
Thankfully, with the help of friends and plenty of research I’ve come to learn the tricks of the trade. It’s not about having a keen eye, but it’s about hunting smart. Knowing when, where, and how to look. While it does take practice and plenty of time in the field to become an expert there are ways to prepare. In this guide, I’ve outlined what you should know before you start on your search for the prized Morel.
On the Search for Morels
Morels mark the beginning of spring for us mushroom enthusiasts. During the cold and rainy winter, we enthusiastically await the arrival of morels. Once the spring temperatures start rising we know it’s time to go check our spots.
After all, many foragers agree morels are the TASTIEST of all mushrooms. They have a meaty flavor and an irresistible texture. They may even be the most exciting part of spring. That is… if you know how to find them!
Finding Morels is not always Easy
Skilled Morel seekers find hundreds of pounds during the season. Not only do they know exactly when and where to go, but they have a trained eye. If you know what you’re doing, morels can be extremely abundant.
For beginners, finding morels can be a struggle. Your first season is often filled with long drives and unsuccessful forays. You are not alone if you spent hours, or even days, looking for morels only to find traces.
Plus finding morels can be treacherous. Especially if you’re looking for the famous burn morels. These landscapes are gloomy, sun-exposed, and leave your clothes dusted with charcoal.
But don’t worry! There are some easy tips to help you along in your journey. If you do your research, it will save you the struggle many mushroom hunters before you faced.
Identifying Morels and their Lookalikes
Morels are some of the easiest mushrooms to identify. They have a distinct morphology that makes them difficult to mistake. On the other hand, many types of morels can look very similar. So, figuring out the exact species can be a taxonomic nightmare. The exact species doesn’t really matter though, all true morels are edible.
There are a couple of lookalikes, that can be toxic if they aren’t well cooked.
- Morels are often said to look like “cones” because of their shape and color.
- The “cap” usually has a honeycomb pattern with ridges and pits.
- ALL MORELS ARE HOLLOW! You should be able to cut them in half and see a hollow pit through the center.
- They are usually longer than they are wide but the exact size can vary. They can be as small as your fingernail or larger than your hand.
- Caps can range from yellow to grey, to white, and even black.
- They usually have a dark musky aroma. Some describe it as “spermatic” although this description is controversial.
- Lookalikes are NOT HOLLOW and may lack “honeycomb” structures. Lookalikes in the genera Verpa have a foamy pit while Gyromitra has more of a brain-like shape.
First Step: Know your Ecology
Mushroom hunting is an ecological scavenger hunt. You must learn to recognize patterns, plants, soils, and seasonal changes. Understanding the ecology of morels makes the difference between a boom or a bust.
Morel ecology is not straightforward either. Many different types of morels occupy different ecological niches and habitats. In different places Morels associate with different types of trees and disturbances. This makes knowing your local tree species KEY to begin this journey.
In the United States and Canada, you can classify morels by geographic location. These are the Western Morels and the Eastern/Midwestern Morels. While the species overlap, they tend to have distinct habitats.
- Occur along the forested regions of the Western United States.
- Mostly in coniferous forests but can diverse habitat. This includes apple orchards, flood plains, burn sites, mulch, and dead trees.
- Abundance increases in mountainous regions of California and towards the Pacific Northwest.
- Occur east of the rocky mountains with more abundance towards the northeast.
- They occur in a wide range of habitats. These include tulip poplars, apple orchards, Elm, Ash, flood plains, and other hardwoods.
- These tend to occur in healthy forests or near dying trees, but not in burns like those in the west.
Morels and Soil Temperatures
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of finding Morels, let’s talk about soil temperatures. Morels begin fruiting with increases in soil temperatures. This usually occurs from March-May when soil temperatures reach 45 to 60 degrees. For most species, the optimum temperature is around 55 degrees.
- Southern facing slopes get more sunlight and thus fruit earlier in the season.
- Soil Temperature is correlated to elevation. If your not finding morels consider going up or down in elevation. Once you find the sweet spot stay around there.
- Edges and areas with less shade/more exposure will also fruit earlier in the season.
- Depending on your region Morels may fruit just below the snow line. This is especially true with Natural Morels in the Western United States.
Finding Morels in the Western United States
Morel habitats in the Western United States are extremely diverse. Almost every forest type will tend to produce a type of morel, but some only a few and far between.
Mountainous regions such as the Sierra Nevada, The Klamath Mountains, The Cascades, and parts of the Coastal Range tend to be the most abundant. There is also notable habitat in Idaho and Montana.
There are 3 functional groups we can use to split up Morel habitats in the Western United States. Natural Morels, Burn Morels, and Woodchip Morels.
Natural Morels grow in forests, riverbanks, and fruit orchards. Their name “natural” refers to the fact that they don’t grow in disturbed or altered environments. They tend to grow in unison with healthy trees.
Where To Find Natural Morels In The Western United States
- Mountainous Conifer Forest with Douglas Fir, True Fir, Hemlock, Pine, and other Conifers. They being producing 2-4 weeks after snowmelt. The Sierra Nevadas, The Klamath-Siskiyou, and The Cascades are all prime habitat. The season is late April to June peaking in May.
- Riverbanks and Floodplains are typically associated with Cottonwoods. Some reports have also been made with sycamore. This habitat is more prolific in the Pacific Northwest. March-June peaking around late April or early May
- Fruit Orchards, most often with old AppleTrees. March-June peaking around late April or early May
Natural Morels occurring in the Western United States
|Common Name||Latin Name||Habitat|
|Mountain Black Morel||M. brunnea||Mountainous conifer forest.|
|Mountain Blond Morel||M. tridentina||Mountainous conifer forest.|
|Thick Stem Morel||M. synyderi||Mountainous conifer forest.|
|Half Free Morel||M. populiphila||Sandy soil near river bottoms associated with Cottonwoods (Poplar sp.).|
|Blond Morel||M. americana||Fruit Orchards and Sandy River Banks. Fruits 2-4 weeks before other natural Morels.|
Burn Morels are famous for occurring in large quantities. They are most known from California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Idaho. They primarily grow in burned coniferous forests in the spring following a wildfire. The first two years after the fire are usually the most abundant. Since they fruit in large quantities, they are the most commercialized of all Morels.
Burn Morels occurring in the Western United States
|Common Name||Latin Name||Habitat|
|Black Burn Morel||M. exuberans||Burned Conifer Forests|
|Western Gray Morel||M. tomentosa||High Altitude Burned Conifer Forests|
|Western Burn Morel||M. eximia||Burned Conifer Forest Sometimes In Seeps or Creeks|
|Black Burn Morel||M. sextelata||Burned Conifer Forests|
Finding Burn Sites
If you’re not sure where to begin with looking for a burn site, there are a few helpful resources. Other than asking on a Facebook group, you can also access data from government agencies. NOAA has created a great list of resources you can use to find burn sites. Another option if your willing to spend a bit of cash is Modern Foragers burn maps and ebook.
Things to Consider When Looking For Burn Morels
- Burn Morels tend to occur in areas with medium burn intensities. If there’s evidence of duff and other organic materials it means the fire intensity wasn’t too high.
- Burn Morel sites are CHALLENGING. They have little no shade, look a bit apocalyptic, and can be dangerous. Bring a hat, water, and watch your step. There are often holes left by burnt trees, unstable trunks, and other hazardous. Be careful!
- Like all morels, Burn Morels are triggered by an increase in soil temperature. Keep to elevation ranges that have proved fruitful.
- The first 2 seasons after a burn are the most productive. Afterward, you can still find morels but in less abundance.
- Use a GPS to mark your spots and avoid getting lost!
Woodchip Morels are best known for occurring in urban settings. Places like landscaping, gardens, and other man-made environments. These are usually the first to occur in the season.
Unfortunately for urban foragers, these are also considered the least flavorful.
Woodchip Morels are usually the species Morchella rufobrunnea. They grow in olive orchards, ornamental gardens, flower pots, and where ever you see mulch. It’s worth checking the gardens in schools, your workplace, or any type of landscaping. While they occur in the spring, they have also been found in the fall.
BEWARE OF TOXINS!
Woodchip morels sometimes occur in gardens treated with pesticides and other harmful chemicals. Morels MAY bioaccumulate these toxins! Also beware of morels near roads, parking lots, or other sources of pollution.
Morels in the Eastern/Midwestern United States
Outside of the Western United States Morels are a bit more straightforward. They occur with select tree species like Elm, Poplar, Ash, Sycamore, and other hardwoods. Often, they occur with dying trees that show evidence of sickness.
|Common Name||Latin Name||Habitat|
|White Morel||M. americana||East of the Rocky Mountains it occurs with Ash, Elm, Aspen, Poplars, Sycamores, and Tulips. Rarely occurs with Conifers but has been reported growing with White Pine.|
|Half Free Morel||M. punctipes||Hardwood forests in the Great Plains and Eastward. Very common east of the Rocky Mountains from March to May. It can be almost absent in some years.|
|Eastern Morel||M. esculentoides||Most widely distributed Morel in North America. It appears in almost any forested region but most often under dying elms and healthy ash trees. Can also be found under old apple trees in abandoned orchards. Occasionally occurs with conifers.|
|Eastern Black Morel||M. angusticeps||Widely distributed east of the Rocky Mountains. Grows with Ash and Tulip Poplar from March to May. They either grow solitary, scattered, or in large patches.|
|Eastern Yellow Morel||M. diminutiva||Occurs around the Great Lakes and South-Eastern US. It typically occurs around white ash, green ash, hickory, tulips, and other hardwoods.|
Tips for Morels in the Eastern/Midwestern United States
- Dying Elms! If Elms occur in your regions keep your eye out for sickly or unhealthy elms. These may have little foliage and have their bark falling off. You can keep your eye out and scout for these throughout the season.
- Old Apple Orchards are great habitats, especially in the Eastern United States. There tend to be old and abandoned orchards in many rural regions. These are the PERFECT habitat during the spring.
- Hydrophilic Plants like Skunk Cabbage can serve as great indicators. This is especially true during seasons with little rain.
- Check Edges around forests and agricultural regions. Often disturbed environments tend to be particularly productive.
- Don’t Have High Hopes for large harvests. Abundant harvests of morels are more common in the western United States. East of the Rockies you usually just find scattered morels in small quantities.
Morels are DELICIOUS! That’s why we and other mushroom hunters are CRAZY about them. They have a strong umami flavor with a delicious texture. They’re great alone or mixed with vegetables or meat. Often they are best cooked along with a bit of garlic and used as a topping.
Many chefs stuff morels with cheese, rice, spices, breadcrumbs, and other ingredients. Morel Pizza is also mouth-watering! Feel free to get creative!
Always cook Morels at high temperatures! Undercooked morels can be toxic and cause illness.
Morels are often dried to extend shelf-life. Unlike other mushrooms, morels preserve their flavor and texture incredibly well when dried.
To Cook Dried Morels: Rehydrate in hot water for at least 15-20 minutes. After rehydrating, add them to any dish. Make sure to save the broth water! It is ABSOLUTELY incredible for sauces, gravies, and broths.
Final Words for Morel Seekers
Hunting morels is unlike hunting any other type of mushroom. Not only do they occur in very distinct habitats, but they usually occur during a unique time of the year. If you’re hoping to find morels for the first time, don’t have any expectations. You may fail! But, don’t worry. Keep trying and search around. It may take several seasons before you get a hang of morel hunting. If you stay committed, you will eventually have success!