Mark McCauley, Ginger Davis, Andrew Fritz, Claire Lane
The elusive morel. What could be more iconic to outdoor enthusiasts in the Spring in Indiana? I can remember my first find so many years ago, about 1977. I wasn’t even really looking for them at that time, as I didn’t even know what they were. As I was walking along some bottom ground near Wildcat Creek, I came upon this unusual looking fungus sticking up out of the ground under the shade of some lower growing trees. None of my family had ever hunted these delicacies, and to my knowledge, had ever eaten them either. It was all new to me. Being curious, I plucked it off, took it home, and stuck it in the fridge. The next day I was at our local bait shop getting some much needed supplies to fish, and I mentioned my recent find to Evelyn, the establishment owner. She became much more excited than I thought would have been reasonable, considering my “insignificant” find, I thought. She said, “you know what you’ve found boy? You have a yellow sponge mushroom (morel)!” She went on to tell me how absolutely delicious they are, how to fry them, etc. I listened with great curiosity, but to be honest, I never ate that first morel. I just wasn’t quite positive that something that looked that weird could actually be edible. However, that has all changed now!
Every Spring since, I have made annual treks through hill and dale in various places around Indiana looking for morels. Some years I am successful, and some years not so much. The season will soon be upon us, and there are some things I have learned over the years that could be helpful to readers of this article who want to know the secrets of successful morel hunting. Here it is ….I always find them close to the ground, no lie! But jokes aside, to be honest, there are a few tips that might be helpful. One thing Evelyn always told me, was to “start looking when oak leaves were the size of squirrel ears”. That is a pretty good guide, but I have also found morels much earlier than that, and much later than that as well. In some years, there have kind of been two seasons as well, where the weather was suitable early and produced an unexpected growth, then turned unfavorable for a few weeks, but returned with good weather to produce a second flush of morels. Not common, but it has happened.
Hunting Morels in the Forest Ecosystem
Imagine this: You’re walking through the woods on a cool spring morning, looking at the fresh new growth of the year, thinking about the that flower or that leaf and wondering how long it has been part of this forest family. And there it is, the Crown Jewel of the spring forest. Towering like a turret, ruling over the rest of its soil subjects. The sacred morel. The morel is a wonderous thing to the nature lover. It is the best way to spring out of cabin fever and enjoy nature again after a harsh or depressing winter.
Morels in the Forest Ecosystem
Humans aren’t the only ones who enjoy these fungi. The tiny insects that we rinse off before cooking relish morels, too. Below ground, morels form symbiotic relationships with roots of many trees, helping them get nutrients. As saprobes, morels decompose dead leaves and wood, which replenishes the soil with organic matter and nutrients.
Mushrooms exist most of the year as a network of cells (mycelium) living in the soil or in rotting material. When ready to reproduce, the mycelium develops mushrooms, which produce spores that, once released, can begin new mycelia elsewhere.
Morels live in and on the edge of forested areas, and often around dead and dying trees. Old apple orchards as well as ash, elm, and oak trees make good hunting grounds, too. Early in the spring as the ground is warming, you'll find morels on south-facing slopes in fairly open areas. As the season progresses, go deeper into the woods and onto north-facing slopes. Well drained sandy soils like near creek bottoms also make good hunting spots for morels.
When a tree reaches the stage of decay where its bark is slipping off its trunk you'll often find lots of morels around it.
There are several types of morels Common, True or Yellow Morel, Black Morel, Half-Free Morel, and False Morel. Now don’t be fooled and watch out for differences between them. The true morel is scrumptious and delicious breaded or used in sauces and other mushroom dishes. The False Morel can cause stomach pain or worse.
For more information on identification, check here.
The distinction between the two is the pitted surface. Morel’s have distinct pockets in the cap, where as the false morels are wavy in appearance. Another good distinction is how the cap is attached to the stem and what is in the inside of the stem. In a true morel, the cap and stem act as one and the cap is attached at the top of the stem. However, in a false morel the stem is attached inside the cap and the cap covers the stem. Slice them open to be sure. Once inside the stem look to see what is inside. A true morel is completely hollow inside. But as always, when in doubt throw it out.
I also have to add a standard disclaimer: don't eat anything solely on the basis of what you've read here. If you're new to morel mushroom identification, have an experienced hunter take you out and check your first finds.
Where do you look for morels? The answers will vary depending on what part of the state you ask. Avid hunters will tell you, around the base of sycamores and tulip poplars (the State tree). Some will say around dying elm trees (that have the large sheets of bark falling off, and easy to see from a distance). Yet others will say under old apple trees (most old farmsteads have areas where apple trees are still living or were in the past). I ran into just such a place hunting the grounds around Mississinewa Reservoir. There were no buildings left on this bluff I came upon, but some existing old apple trees did exist, and sure enough, there were the morels, but only the stumps! Someone had evidently known the location and beat me to it. The weird thing about morels is, you can follow all the hunting tips, but then you may just find one in you yard, or even the gravel driveway, or some other unexpected place. In general, the majority are found in the usual suspected places with the right growing conditions.
When should you start looking for morels? Soil temperature is a good indication of when to start looking. Around 45-50 degree soil temperature is the right time for morels to come up. Also, there needs to be moisture, so when you combine a recent rain, along with those soil temperatures, there is a good chance morels will be up. Some also say it’s good to hunt south facing slopes early in the season, since the idea is that those soils will warm up sooner in the spring. There are also several different types of morels. You may here hunters talking about greys, blacks, yellows, and even “spikes”, and each has a preferred timing to come up as well, with the big yellows being the last to emerge.
Why do morels seem to grow more under certain trees and in certain locations? It is not well understood, but there is a theory that morels have a symbiotic relationship with the roots of trees, meaning the tree provides them certain things, and they in turn provide the tree with certain benefits, all underground of course. The morels we see are actually the fruiting bodies (flower) of the much vaster web of fungi (mycelium) underground. When a tree is stressed, such as an ash tree dying from ash borer damage, it stops producing nutrients that the mycelium needs to survive, so the response of the mycelium is to produce fruiting bodies (morels) to disperse it’s spores and survive! That is also the reason avid hunters visit recent forest fire areas in the spring following the prior year’s fire (more common in the western states). Yet, some morels still seem to pop up under perfectly healthy trees as well, so it’s all still somewhat of a mystery, and I think that is part of the fun of the whole subject.
Grow your own Morels
You can grow your own morel mushrooms. It’s easy, but it may or may not be entirely predictable.
There are two popular ways in which to go about it: by purchasing your own mushroom spawn (online or otherwise) or by creating your own slurry from mushrooms that you have harvested. The basic idea is that you spread the mycelium onto a suitable site where mushrooms are likely to grow well. Mycelium are the spores that mushrooms use to reproduce and spread.
Like the unpredictable nature of finding morel mushrooms, there is no exact science to growing them. However, there are best practices to get you on your way. Below are some websites that do an excellent job of explaining how to grow morel mushrooms when considering timing, location, and methods.
As long as humans have traveled across the earth, they have purposefully, and sometimes unknowingly, transported plants, animals, insects, and other organisms on their bodies, in shipping containers, on their shoes, etc. When an organism is brought to an area it did not traditionally grow, it is considered non-native. When a non-native species causes harm to the environment, human health, and the economy, it is considered an invasive species. Unfortunately, many invasive species can decimate the forest habitat where mushroom hunters seek morels, where wildlife seek out their dinner or a place to brood their young, or the forest or park habitat you take refuge in as a recreation space. Invasive species like Asian honeysuckle and garlic mustard are kept in check in their native ecosystems by a balance of predators and competing organisms. Outside of their natural habitat, in your favorite mushroom spot perhaps, they can take advantage of their new environment and completely outmatch their native predecessors.
For example, Japanese bush honeysuckle is an upright deciduous shrub which arching branches that grows 6 to 20 feet tall. It leafs out, or produces leaves, before our native shrubs in the spring and this advantage allows it to shade out native species like dogwoods and spring wildflowers. Honeysuckle forms dense thickets that are void of any other vegetation. This disrupts the food chain and habitat of all the insects, birds, and other wildlife that depend on the native species that can no longer grow there.
Garlic mustard is native to Europe and has a biennial life cycle, so it completes its life cycle over a two-year period with a basal rosette stage the first year and flowering in year two. When it does flower, each plant can produce thousands of seeds that can remain dormant in the soil for a decade. Not only does garlic mustard crowd out native spring ephemerals like trillium and violets, it also releases a chemical into the soil that hinders the growth of other plans. Garlic mustard plays to win in our forest ecosystem and often does.
Honeysuckle and garlic mustard are just two examples of the many invasive species that invade our woodlands and eliminate habitat for the species we do want—like morels! If you are a morel hunter, you belong in the fight against invasive species. Luckily, Hamilton County is launching a Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA) dedicated to battling invasive species across our county. We are doing this through education and action, and we welcome you to join us. Our CISMA is made up of parks department and city representatives, master gardeners, environmental advocates, hunters, hikers, lovers of the outdoors, property owners, and everyone in between. Additionally, the SWCD is offering free on-site invasive species technical assistance for property owners (woodland/acreage properties get preference) in addition to our tool loan program where you can check out supplies to address invasive species. If you are a morel lover, invasive species matter! Be part of the solution and keep the hunt alive!
So, what does all this have to do with the Soil and Water Conservation District you may ask? Well, there are a lot of connections, actually. For one thing, if you go out to hunt morels, you will be exposing yourself to the beauty of our natural resources, and that often results in a greater appreciation for what we have been blessed with, and an increased urge to be better stewards of our natural resources. It can also be a good time to learn about our woodlands and become familiar with many tree species and how to identify them. You can also take inventory of issues you may see while out on your own property or that of a friends, or even on public land that allows morel hunting. You may see problems like soil erosion, invasive plant species, potential tree issues (i.e. emerald ash borer), opportunities for improvements (i.e. wildlife habitat), and more. So, it’s not all just hunting the illusive morel that may result in a benefit. Just be sure to hunt safely, always get permission and know the rules for the land you are on. Let someone know where you are going, and carry a cell phone when possible. Most importantly, learn about what IS a true morel, and once you find one, (if desired) cook well and eat a small quantity at first, just to make sure your body is fine with consuming them. Happy Spring hunting !