Mushrooms or not, it’s never a bust
It was nearing the end of May when I drove back to Colorado from Alabama. I had my camper in tow, and I flexed my hands in relief as I tucked into the Rocky Mountains. It had been seven hours of battling wind and rain and trailer sway with my steering wheel.
I moved backward on my journey, not only an hour with the time zone, but also a season, leaving the smothering air of a southern summer into a barely budding spring in the West—the aspens still a week away from turning green. I finally made it home and cracked my window before crawling into bed. There is nothing as enchanting as the Rocky Mountain springtime air.
The next day, while having a celebratory cocktail with a group of friends, my ears perked at the word “morels,” and I emerged in excitement from my exhausted, half-drunken stupor.
“Morels? Morel mushrooms?” I blurted.
My friend Heidi turned to me. “Yes! Because it has been so cloudy and rainy here lately, black morels are growing right now,” she said.
Going on a Morel Mushroom Hunt
Rain drops glistened on my patio table and I thanked them. I was overdue on writing a story on how to forage morel mushrooms for Hunt to Eat. Most importantly, I hadn’t even seen a morel mushroom and didn’t understand the hype at first. I did my research and became very intrigued. I told myself I could do a cut-and-dry instruction guide and omit the fact that I had no experience. No problem!
Problem. In my attempts to write the article, I would ramble, delete, ramble, delete, ramble, delete. I felt like an imposter. Who was I to write about something I had never even seen?
Then, my opportunity came over cocktails. Heidi asked, “Would you like to go try to find some tomorrow morning?”
My bags were not yet unpacked from my trip. I had errands to run. I had a new job to get ready for the next day. Still, there was no way I was saying no. The next morning, I emptied my backpack in anticipation of filling it to the brim with western black morels.
Identifying Morel Mushrooms
A morel mushroom looks kind of like a sea sponge poking out of the forest floor. Morchella esculenta, the Latin name for a common morel mushroom, only grows in the northern hemisphere. When you’re hunting for morel mushrooms, you’re looking for their wrinkled brown tops and hollow light-colored stems underneath trees, specifically elm, sycamore, hickory, and ash trees. Morels also love disturbed ground. They often pop up in areas that recently had a controlled burn, clearcuts, or areas that had a wildfire.
It’s important to note that there is also a mushroom called a false morel. It looks a lot like a morel mushroom, but its stem is not hollow. Do not eat this mushroom! It will make you very sick.
Morels are hard to farm, so if you’ve ever eaten a morel mushroom, consider it a treat! Your tasty morel was more than likely harvested in the wild. Morels are supposed to have a nutty, earthy, woodsy flavor. I mean, that’s what you’d expect, right? Morel mushrooms are usually sautéed or fried, and there are an array of recipes using morels with pasta dishes, beef dishes, fish, and—best of all—turkey dishes. Morels only grow in the springtime, which is also during turkey season. On your turkey hunt, you could also go morel foraging and kill two birds with one stone. In other words, kill a bird and pick some mushrooms.
Hunting for Morel Mushrooms is Fun
What I’ve learned in my new exposure to “mushrooming” is that it’s not necessarily the harvest, but the hunt that makes it fun.
Heidi and I drove out of town to a wilderness area. The mountains around us were freshly dusted with snow, which was hard to wrap my head around after spending three weeks in balmy Alabama. It smelled like wet soil, fresh rain, and the Extra chewing gum that has become my vice. It was chilly and misty, making the greens on the forest floor pop brightly. We lasered our focus onto the ground looking for these black, sponge-like mushrooms. We weren’t sure if there were any at all growing in this area, but we had high hopes in the high elevation.
There are a few interactive maps online showing where morels have been spotted/harvested around the country and during which month. I had looked these up for Alabama and realized I missed my chance there! I had missed the perfect conditions for morels in the south. It was already too warm.
Heidi and I didn’t use these helpful resources for our adventure. The mystery of it made it all the more magical. I was thankful for Heidi’s sense of direction, too, because I have a knack for getting myself lost. I’ve done it many times. I even got lost on the Appalachian Trail, and it’s a well-marked, well-used trail. For off-trail foraging, use your compass, your phone’s GPS, or you can call my friend Heidi. We weaved and wound, off-trail and on, looking for perfect mushy spots. We kept saying, “If I were a mushroom, I’d grow here.” Heidi had experience foraging for golden chanterelles, porcinis, and Hawk’s Wing, so she knew what little pockets in the forest were the most promising.
Finding Morels on the Land
A perfect spot for a mushroom is not simply geography. There are specific conditions that morel mushrooms need to grow and ultimately end up in my backpack. Light is a factor. Some sources say they need a maximum of three hours of sunlight per day, so shady spots are ideal. Temperature is crucial—not only atmospheric temperature but soil temperature, as well. Air temperature should be at about 60 degrees, and soil temperature between 45-50 degrees consistently.
Okay, so how do you even know the soil temperature? The best way to do this is to stick your finger in the soil, turn your finger clockwise once, then counterclockwise to create friction. Then lick a finger on your other hand and stick it in the air. I’m obviously kidding, but if you did it, I love how much you trusted me. Don’t lose that trait just because of a snarky author. They do make compost thermometers that are beneficial in determining the soil temperature if you want to be much more scientific than Heidi and me.
Mushrooms, morels or otherwise, grow in sh**. Seriously. The funkier, the better. Five minutes into our foraging adventure, Heidi and I spotted a mushroom.
A morel?! You ask.
No. Another type of mushroom: long, yellow, and cartoonish-looking, growing out of an old cow patty that was probably plopped down there last summer. It’s a great metaphor for life, isn’t it? Some of the best things can come from an old pile of crap.
You will typically find morels around dead trees. We hopped over evergreen logs and dead aspens, peered around decaying branches and rotting tree slabs. Heidi delicately moved the topsoil to show me the mycelium underneath. Mycelium deserves its own article. Its multicellular, stringy, white network is essential underneath the forest floor. Still, no black morels.
It’s Not Just About the Mushrooms
We both panted after trudging uphill where a new growth of aspens opened up to a clearing. In front of us laid miles of sage-covered hills and jagged, snowy peaks. We turned back into the cover of the forest, and Heidi gasped. “Look!”
I ran up to her scanning quickly for what she was trying to point out to me. “Is it a mushroom?”
“No. Look at the lupine leaves!”
The lupine flowers hadn’t sprouted, but the deep green, star-shaped leaves held a puddle of shimmering dew in their centers.
Heidi smiled. “They’re like little fairy cups,” she said.
Lupine, like mycelium, also deserves its own article for its gifts to the forest floor.
Heidi and I bobbed along, talking about life’s joys and sorrows and culture and climate and social justice, beginning to lose our laser focus until finding morels became an afterthought. The trail curved to a head-on view of a rock formation called the Castles jutting up into the low-hanging clouds, snow still clinging to the cliff faces. The Castles are eroded bits of debris flows from a Denali-sized volcano that once overtook the horizon. They also deserve their own article.
“Mushrooms or not, it’s never a bust,” Heidi said.
She was right. The company, conversation, and education were well worth it. If you’re going morel hunting, use it as an excuse to explore your backyard, your forests, and its features. My best advice is to bring an appetite to learn, not just the appetite for a nutty, earthy, woodsy flavor in the form of a morel mushroom.
The Art of Hunting
The art of hunting for anything is being present in your environment and with yourself, anchoring your feet to an old planet and understanding the inner workings of an old forest. Outside of these magical places, our network is half-asleep and not present. Rediscover that explorer you lost when you were a kid. That’s what mushrooming can be about.
When Heidi and I discovered how far we had gone, we decided to turn back to the car. The sun rose higher and broke through the mist. The soil and air became warmer, and so did our faces. Somewhere a morel mushroom was basking in that same morning sun. I walked away with an empty backpack but a full heart. Okay, yeah, I know: cheesy. Why don’t you go morel mushroom hunting and become a little cheesy yourself? We weren’t disappointed. We smiled and laughed driving home, me chomping away on another stick of Extra gum, already making plans to hike the next weekend instead saving those days off for errands or construction on my unfinished camper. No, it wasn’t a bust at all.
When I do find one, it will be an absolute rush.
Until then, morels, thanks for hiding.