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50 Tips to Spot Morels

  • 4/8/2015 8:51:00 AM
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50 Tips to Spot Morel Mushrooms | Iowa Outdoors magazine and Iowa DNRBy Mike Krebill; from the March/April 2012 issue of Iowa Outdoors Magazine magazine

Editor's note: Spring is a time when morel mushroom hunters flock to the Iowa woods in search of the favorite fungi. It’s also a time when turkey hunters are pursuing the elusive gobbler. Thus, encounters between the two can occur. To maximize safety and enjoyment, be considerate of others’ rights to pursue their hobbies on public land. Mushroom hunters should avoid wearing colors associated with a tom turkey—red, white and blue—and instead wear blaze orange.

Consider avoiding morel hunts in the early morning and late afternoon, when turkey hunters are more likely to be in the field, or choose a public location that doesn’t allow hunting. Both turkey and mushroom hunters should consider choosing a different location if multiple vehicles are in the parking lot. 

As a former science teacher, I taught students the concept of a “variable”—anything that might influence the outcome of an investigation. Unfortunately, dozens of variables collide when finding morels. Here’s how to put more in your basket.

One way to prepare for the season is to look at photos of morels daily. Imprinting the morel pattern in your brain will help spot them quickly and more often. Put a photo on your refrigerator. Stick one at your desk or other high visibility area. Find images online and print the best photos.  

When to Look
Wait for nature’s signs of spring before searching for morels: oak leaves the size of squirrel ears; lilacs budding and ready to flower; mayapple leaves opened up like umbrellas; and flowering trilliums, bloodroot, trout lily, Virginia bluebells, dandelion, spring beauty and columbine. 

Track morel sightings:

Weather, Soils and Trees
The chances of finding morels improve when daytime temperatures reach the 60s and nighttime temperatures are in the 50s. More specifically, a soil temperature of 53 degrees is the time to start looking. Variables affecting ground warmth include type of soil (well-drained sandy soils warm up more quickly than clay), the degree that the ground slopes and its aspect (whether the slope faces north or south), the amount of sun or shade, soil moisture and the time of day. Soil temperature at one location can vary as much as eight degrees a day.

When everything else is just right, a warm spring rain can trigger morel emergence. An early warm spell, such as in 2010, followed by a cool spell before another warm up can play havoc with hunting success. If you waited to hunt until after the second warming, your chance of finding morels diminished. As a general rule in Iowa, it is best to start looking in early April, and then continue to hunt through mid-May.

Where to Look
Dead elms are often morel magnets. Dutch elm disease hit all 99 Iowa counties in the 1950s, killing approximately 95 percent of urban elms. Remaining elms produce a prodigious amount of winged seeds every spring in a battle to survive, and dying and dead elms are still encountered in the woods.

“Your best luck,” says Dave Layton of the Prairie States Mushroom Club, “will be where the elm is still dying, or has died within the last year.” Such an elm will have most of its bark on it, but few if any leaves.

Morels are mycorrhizal mushrooms that form a symbiotic relationship with many types of trees, including elms. In a symbiotic relationship, both life forms benefit from the partnership. The underground, unseen part of the mushroom (the mycelium, a matted network of fine, threadlike hyphae) connects with the root hairs of the tree. The tree provides food as sugar manufactured in its leaves, and water. In return, the mycelium supplies nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other minerals that improves tree growth.

Symbiotic Relationship Loss Theory
I have a theory of why morels are found around diseased and dying elms, but not those dead for more than two years. I believe morel mycelia are responding to the dwindling health of diseased elms, and the consequent death of their own connected tissue, by fruiting or sending up the above-ground part we call a morel. In its pits, morels produce spores that are carried by wind, rain and critters to a new host, enabling it to survive. An elm devoid of bark or that has toppled to the ground does not retain the symbiotic relationship that attracts morels and is an unproductive place to look.

Old apple orchards are another great area to hunt. It may be that morels push up above the soil as the tree declines in health, just as with elms. However, apple trees take longer to die than diseased elms, so old orchards may remain productive for a longer time. Morels have been found in cider processing piles. Old peach orchards may be worth exploring as well.

Morels can also be found near ash trees; the black ash of Iowa swamps, and the green and white ash of floodplains, valleys, hillsides and uplands. With the emergence of the destructive and exotic emerald ash borer, we can expect devastation similar to Dutch elm disease, only faster once it takes hold. Ash borers loosen the bark on the tree, which quickly falls off as the tree dies. If my “loss of the symbiotic relationship” theory is correct, this should boost the number of morels seen in years to come, so ensure you learn how to identify ash trees.

Black locust groves should also not be overlooked. Don’t bypass white pine plantations. Morels also grow there. Not to confuse the issue, but morels have been found near aspen groves, wild black cherry trees, shagbark hickories and oaks, in river and stream bottoms with cottonwood and silver maple and sycamore, near wild grape vines and even beneath Osage orange (hedge ball) trees. They are also found in disturbed areas with limestone and shale.

When times are dry, head downhill. Check mossy ground, search the base of slopes and thoroughly investigate areas with heavy to moderate ground cover. It is much harder to see morels when ground cover is abundant, but such cover can indicate rich, moist soil that can be productive for mushroom hunters.

Former Keokuk High School student Elliot Vandenberg, a past student of mine, has a knack for finding morels. He favors foraging creek and river bottoms with sandy soil, seeking areas where sunlight hits. He finds morels at the edge of woods or fields, sometimes around stumps where more light reaches the ground, but never deep in the woods. Sunlight is a key to finding morels, Vandenberg believes. Perhaps its role in raising soil temperature makes the difference. Islands are also extremely productive, he adds. If an area floods, he says it takes two to three years before it recovers, so don’t waste time searching recently flooded areas.

How to Look: Use the Foveal Groucho Marx Stoop
Michigan mushroom forager and noted morel aficionado Garrett Todd believes that we cannot see and recognize morels with our peripheral vision. Foveal vision, where the view of both eyes overlap, is the sharpest, most focused, highest resolution part of our gaze. That means we will identify more morels, he claims, if we concentrate on slowly sweeping for them using foveal vision.

Todd says the time spent looking is much more important than the distance covered. He is a staunch advocate of the 1-6 ratio. For every minute of walking, we ought to be spend six minutes carefully looking. Morels may be hidden under fallen leaves or pieces of bark, or obscured by vegetation. Use a hiking stick to flip over raised leaves or large pieces of elm bark, or to move mayapple leaves to one side. Remember, morels occur singly, but they also occur in groups.

Before his untimely death from injuries when a four-wheeler tipped over on him in 2003, Michigan’s Larry Lonik was widely regarded as the world’s most knowledgeable morel mushroom expert. Here’s some of his advice on how to look, from his book, MORELS: True or False, The Essential Field Guide and More. (RKT Publishing, Hazel Park, MI, 1999.) “If you are not seeing any, change locations. Keep moving. Look 10 to 20 feet away, not directly down. Look for the “Christmas tree” shape, particularly with black morels."

Lonik was famous for his eccentric walking style as he hunted mushrooms. Crouched down as he took long strides forward, this helped in seeing the outline of the morel cap against the background. He described his “mushroom walk” as a Groucho Marx imitation. Nicknamed “Tree” because he stood 6 feet 7 inches tall, Lonik found Marx’s walking style very helpful when searching for morels.

He also recommended bringing children and grandchildren along to join in the hunt. Being closer to the ground, once they get a feel for finding morels, they are likely to spot more than taller adults.
While Lonik advocated shape recognition, other productive and fast-paced hunters scan for patterns. Even when morels seem camouflaged by the background, their pockmarked natural-sponge pattern distinguishes them from the background if you search for it.
Tips for Eating Morels and Staying Safe:

1) Collect morels only from areas away from pesticides or heavy metals sources.
2) Do not mix other mushroom species with morels when collecting.
3) Don’t collect morels that look bad such as old, discolored or decayed parts.
4) Do not collect or store morels in plastic bags. Morels spoil rapidly in plastic. Baskets or mesh bags are best for collecting; paper sacks are best for storing in a refrigerator.
5) If you plan to freeze morels, first cook them a couple of minutes. Cooking will stop bacteria growth.
6) Always cook morels. They are not safe to eat raw.

For more info on hunting morels, check out our Take It Outside, Outdoor and Wild Recipes, and We Love Spring in Iowa boards on Pinterest.