Our early ancestors survived by foraging for wild foods. Many of us relive a deeply buried memory of that heritage when we experience the joy in successfully finding, and ultimately consuming, a gourmet wild edible. In many parts of the world, morel mushrooms are considered a premier delicacy. To find these mushrooms and to successfully return from the hunt requires the ability to understand macro- and micro-habitats, the ability to navigate safely in the forest and the ability to see through camouflage. These are all traits of good explorers. The good eating that comes with a successful hunt is the prize that motivates many to explore for mushrooms. The discovery of new places, terrain, and views comes with the adventure. Whatever motivates you, mushroom hunting, and morel hunting in particular, is a great excuse to get out and explore.
In some places morels appear in old apple orchards and a variety of other habitats, but in the Oregon Cascade Mountains and much of the western United States, they appear in coniferous forests. But not, as you might expect, in pristine forests. To find mushrooms you must have a basic understanding of their habitats and behavior. First of all, the mushroom itself is but a fruit of a much larger ‘tree’ made up of thousands of miles of tiny strands of underground mycelia. In fact, the largest living organism ever found was a mushroom. Not the individual fruit, but the normally unseen mycelia that arose from spores and spread through the soil over thousands of acres. It is particularly interesting that, unlike plants, mushrooms are sexual beings. An individual spore can sprout and grow its mycelium, but it cannot reproduce until it mates with a compatible mycelium. Once mated, it can produce mushrooms we see and they, in turn, distribute spores to continue the process. The mycelia typically produces mushrooms when it is stressed. This is its effort to sustain the race by producing offspring. The key to finding morels is understanding the stressors that lead to fruiting. Successful morel hunters in the coniferous forests have long known to look in areas that had burned in the previous year. Research suggests that morel mushrooms can live for awhile without a connection to a tree, but that they do better when they tap into tree rootlets to obtain nourishment and provide minerals to the tree. This symbiotic relationship is beneficial to both the mushroom and the tree. When the tree dies suddenly, like in a forest fire, the mushroom is stressed over the loss of its food supply and produces mushrooms in an effort to put spores in the air that can travel to more hospitable environments. So, burned over areas are good places to look for morels.
Timber harvest also kills trees and can have the same effect as a forest fire, as far as morel production goes. In fact, our adventure took us to an area where the timber had recently been thinned. There is a lot of thinning taking place in the forests of the western United States. Commercial timber harvest has been significantly reduced over the last couple of decades leading to trees becoming crowded and the biomass levels rising to unprecedented levels. In order to reduce the likelihood of extremely severe wildfires that can lay waste to entire forests, foresters have been removing some of the trees to reduce the level of biomass and increase the health of the trees that remain. As a result, morel hunters have a lot of places to look. The relationship between morel fruiting and dead trees has been exploited by mushroom growers. In 2005, Stewart C. Miller even patented a process for growing morels that involves inoculating tree seedlings with morel mycelium, allowing the mycelium to grow, then killing the seedlings to induce the morels to fruit. Read all about it in US Patent 6,907,691B2 (PDF – 186K). Morels grow in the spring. The snow must be gone and the soil must be warm enough and damp enough. Researchers developing techniques to farm morels have found that a flood of water is necessary to induce fruiting. It’s the melting snow that provides the water the wild mushrooms need. Soil temperature is also important. Morel metabolism doesn’t kick into gear until the weather warms a bit. This is about the same time of the year as lilacs start to bloom. As a result, the first morels are typically found in lower, sunnier areas. As the year progresses, they can be found farther and farther up the mountains.
Once in an area likely to have morels, you must begin to think about the micro-habitats that produce morels. First, morels sprout from the ground. They do not grow in trees or from logs like many mushrooms. Second, disturbed ground that provides evidence of damage to the morel mycelia generally produces more morels. Third, slightly lower areas that held a bit more water from the melting snow seem to produce better. Look for ruts in the ground caused by logging equipment. Look in the most disturbed areas you can find – even around slash piles – as long as there are some needles and twigs over bare soil. Then, look all around. Sometimes morels pop up where you would not expect to see them. Note that if you find one mushroom, there are probably more, so focus more closely on the ground all around your find.
What does a morel look like? Morels are one of the easiest mushrooms to identify because they lack the traditional cap, gills (or pores) and stem of the more common mushrooms. Review the photos here to get a good idea of their general appearance.
Can it be confused with poisonous mushrooms? Yes, if you are not careful! The photo to the right is a false morel known scientifically as Gyromitra esculenta. We found it on the same day and in the same habitat where we picked the true morels shown elsewhere on this page. According to Tom Volk a mycologist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, two to four percent of all mushroom poisonings are caused by this mushroom. Some people eat it after repeatedly boiling it to remove the toxins, but I recommend that you avoid it. It is clearly not the morel for which we are searching. Besides the color, note how the texture is formed by wavy, folding ridges rather than by sharper ridges that enclose depressions or pits. Verpa bohemica or the early morel is also a false morel and looks much more like a true morel than the Gyromitra species. One way to be sure you have a morel is to look at the mushroom after you cut it half lengthwise. The cap of a true morel is attached to the stem for its entire length. The false morels have caps that are separate from the stem at the bottom so they look more like an actual cap sitting atop the stem.
Morels are very good at camouflage. Given that you are in a coniferous forest, you will find pine cones on the ground. In an upright position, these cones can appear nearly identical to a morel, especially in the subdued light of the forest. Their coloring and texture allow them to hide well among the dirt and needles of the forest floor. This is especially true if you are looking in a burned area. As you can see in the photos, the morels are quite dark and even have edges that appear burned. I have had my eyes on a morel only to look up and then back down to be unable to find the mushroom. Some people say they run and hide. They certainly can be elusive. A different perspective often helps. The photos below show two views of the same mushroom. From the top it’s a bit hard to discern; from a different angle it becomes more obvious. Because of the difficulty in seeing morels and changing perspective, a picker following another picker can often find mushrooms the first picker missed.
Mushrooms have distinctive odors. If your nose is sensitive enough, you can use it to find morels, or at least get you close enough to find them by sight.
Our adventure began at the office of the Klamath Ranger District of the Fremont-Winema National Forests. In the United States, the National Forests are public lands and anyone can forage for wild edibles in them for little to no cost. As long as the edibles are for personal use. If you plan to sell your mushrooms, you enter into the arena of commercial use and must purchase a permit. We were at the Ranger Station to pick up our free-use permit. Individuals can face a large fine if caught possessing mushrooms without one on the Deschutes, Umpqua, Willamette and Fremont-Winema National Forests of central and southern Oregon. Other National Forests and other public lands have different rules. For example, the Rogue River National Forest allows possession of up to two gallons of mushrooms without a permit. Our permit allowed each of us to pick up to 2 gallons of mushrooms per day for any ten days of the season. In order to insure that the mushrooms are not being sold, there is also a requirement to cut them lengthwise and separate the halves. The market for wild mushrooms wants only whole mushrooms, so this treatment insures they won’t be sold on the open market.
With our permits in hand, we set out on the search. Our party included Pathfinder Jerry, Chief Scout Trish, Chief Scout’s sis Tamera and her three kids – Nicholas (age 8), Annie (age 7) and Jayden (age 3). Morels are a spring mushroom that appears as soil temperatures rise. We had heard, that in early May they were starting to appear in the Rocky Point vicinity west of Klamath Falls, Oregon. We searched several disturbed areas of the forest in the vicinity of Rocky Point. Don’t expect a more detailed location – morel hunters rarely reveal such details. Further, if you arrive at a given location a week or two late, you won’t see any mushrooms. A terrific mushroom patch will be a disappointment if you are there when the mushrooms aren’t. Mushroom patches also move from year to year. While a burned area or timber harvest area might produce morels for a year or two, they soon stop producing and mushroom hunters must move on. This adventure simply requires some exploration on your own. We spent the better part of an afternoon, first finding only a couple of morels higher in the mountains before dropping lower to find more. A hundred feet of elevation can make a big difference.Tamara used her nose to tell us there were morels around a couple of slash piles. She was right on. Although morels are less odiferous than other mushrooms, Tamara is good at detecting them. We found several morels close to the edge of the slash piles, but we had to move some of the debris to uncover them. Upon setting off across the forest we came upon more morels hiding in the detritus on the forest floor in many of the micro-habitats described above. Although we spent a lot of the afternoon exploring unproductive areas, we were able to collect a couple pounds of morels and enjoyed a great walk in the woods. One last note. Please cook your morels. Mushroom cells are made of chitin an indigestible material. Cooking allows your body to gain the full benefits of the mushrooms while greatly enhancing their taste. In addition, some people get very ill eating raw morels.
The U.S. Forest Service published a book entitled “Ecology and Management of Morels Harvested From the Forests of Western North America.” You can download it in four parts:
Tom Volk offers a lot of information in his article “Fungus of the Month” for April 1997. If you’d like to try growing your own, be sure to study the links collected by The Mushroom Growers’ Newsletter. For information on cooking morels see the “Mushroom Appreciation” website.
The text, video and all photos, except as noted below, are by Jerry Haugen, Pathfinder, and ©2011 Global Creations LLC. The photo of the plate of mushrooms below is by Trish Haugen, Chief Scout, and ©2011 Global Creations LLC. The photos of your Pathfinder and the false morel are ©2011 by Tamara Campbell and used here with permission. The song “I Just Enjoy Morels Too Much” is used in the soundtrack of the video. It was written by Zoe Wood and Larry Evans and performed by Zoe Wood. Larry gave us permission to use it. If you like the tune, please buy the Fungal Boogie CD with 13 songs about mushrooms.