How To

Expert Tips to Spot Morels and Increase Your Harvest

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50 tips to spot morels

Press release by Mike Krebill for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. 

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.

Imprinting
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 the progression of morels from Mexico to Canada at:

http://thegreatmorel.com/sightings.html and www.morelmushroomhunting.com/morel_progression_sightings_map.htm.

Whether you want to follow morels north with spring, or wait until they reach your location, this is a great way to be in the know.

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

And 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.

Image courtesy Iowa DNR

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of OutdoorHub. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.
  • Tom Nauman

    The four wheeler did not tip over on Larry Lonik. It did tip over when a front wheel got caught in a vine. But, being 6′ 8″, he was able to step off while it rolled. He then up-righted the four wheeler by himself and rode it back to where he was staying. At supper he complained of shoulder pain. His friends insisted he go to the hospital to be checked out. While sitting in a chair being given a clean bill of health, he collapsed. Coroners report said massive heart failure. Possibly caused by the stress of up-righting the vehicle.

  • Robert Eckerson

    To tip 4 I would add: Use only a wide mesh bag for collecting, this will allow spores that fall off as you walk to plant more morels. Do it.

    • Jack

      I spent most my life in Washington State on the West side of the Cascade Mountains. My Uncle Tom was most likely the best harvester of Morel Mushrooms that walked the earth. Born in the 1920’s he lived and worked within 5 miles of where he was born his entire life. The only time he left for more than a vacation was to fight Nazi’s in France. Uncle Tommy was my hero. He knew every inch of all the the woods all around our area and trust me, it was all woods.
      The best place to find Morels or Timber Mushrooms as we called them was under the leaves of the Cottonwoods, those trees are much different than the Cottonwoods in the rest of the country. They wood grow in the needles of firs but not so much Cedars. In Eastern Washington abandoned orchards and pine needles wood provide great areas to pick them. Tom had keen vision and was an observant hunter and outdoors. Five people could go through a given area and pick it clean, then Tommy would walk through and harvest more than the other 5 combined. Walk slow and be observant. A walking stick is a huge help. A high spot in the leaf layer usually means a shroom is pushing them up!

      • Cyndi M

        Good info. Thanks. I live in Yakima. I know people’s me who go morel hunting successfully. I picked them as a child in Michigan

      • Jack

        One of Toms favorite places for a yearly vacation was up highway 410 out of Yakima. All of the area in the Natchez and Nile hunting areas are good. Better in the lower parts of both areas. If not down low than go up higher and look. Temperatures drive their growth that, and moisture.
        We cut down the middle and washed and cooked what we were going to eat. The rest were allowed to dry after cleaning and frozen. They kept well for 6 months. The ones from Eastern side were firmer and better tasting at least that’s this mans opinion. Good hunting.
        Chanterelles will be along soon as well and are a real delicacy. Any mushroom book has pictures and they are easy to find because of the color.

      • Lynn B

        I just spent a week in Washington falling in love with the state. Hoping to make the move from MI in the near future! Good thing you have morels there as well!

  • JW

    I’ve been eating them raw for years…Why are they not safe?

    • Jack

      I’ve never eaten raw but if washed very, very clean would be wise. If you think of what helps them grow, (decay, feces, etc) it might make you cook.
      Our two favorite ways to enjoy were to first clean. Split the shroom in half length wise and wash well with cold water. Dry completely on cloth or paper towels.
      Frying in cast iron with butter in sautéed fashion and serving with meat and taters is terrific. If you like a gravy, cut a couple into small chunks and make your mushroom gravy separate from your fried shrooms and serve.
      The best for last! Fried mushrooms!!! Get a cast iron pan heated on medium high heat. While it’s warming, take your pre halved, cleaned and dried mushrooms and make a little assembly line, eggs stored into a wash and another bowl offlour with a hint of salt and maybe Mrs Dash instead of the salt and some pepper. Sometimes I will take another bowl with parmigiana Panko crumbs for a kicker. Do the dip in egg wash, then flour and then bake to the egg wash. The final dip is into either flour or the Panko crumbs. I usually place 6 or 8 dipped halves on a plate and toss a stick of real butter into the pan. When the butter melts you need to decide if more is needed but in any case have more ready to add ( I’d pre melt so there would be no interruption) keep about 1/4″ butter in the hot cast iron pan. Lay the halves in flat side down. When the edges look done (this is when the flour or crumbs are nicely browned) then gently turn to cook the other side. Pan heat is important as you want to cook fairly quickly but not too fast. If the butter melts fast and is starting to brown pan heat is about right. Be gentle when turning and experiment. Maybe more butter will make it easier to get done without the breading coming off.
      If you have a stash of cleaned dried and frozen shrooms in paper bags, take them out and head to the coast during Razor clam season. Dig the clams a grind the necks up and star your chowder. Then take the body meat and fry them exactly like the mushrooms and enjoy a feast that very few people get to enjoy.