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Mysterious, Marvelous Morels

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Photo by Peter Rossing Photo by Peter Rossing

Not quite everything you need to know to head out and hunt down this Northwest favorite

“Naw, I’m not gonna tell you that.” His jaw hardened and his eyes narrowed. A second question elicited an almost identical response. “Nope, ain’t gonna tell you that, either.” You might think he was protecting the location of a favored fishing hole, or a particularly productive patch of huckleberries, but my questions were an attempt to discover the location of an even-more tempting morsel of mouthwatering magnificence—the Morel mushroom. And nothing triggers “stubborn” in this area quite so much as seeking to learn the secrets of hunting morels.

Smokey. Woodsey. Earthy. Mysterious. When listening to an aficionado describe the morel, you’d think they were talking about a fine wine. Listen to them a little longer, however, and you soon realize that this temporary delight—found only in spring and so savored like wild asparagus for its short-lived enjoyment—is quite simply a passion for those who collect them.

Which is why it doesn’t do much good to ask where they can be found, because the true morel person wants them all for themselves.

Lucky for you, I am not a morel fan. I am not even a mushroom fan, and will pick them out of eggs or pizza and set them aside for my partner, David, to eat. Which doesn’t mean I don’t want to find a morel, and, indeed, I have found them before. And no, I won’t tell you where, because the thrill of the hunt is sufficient in itself.

I will, however, tell you how you can try to find them yourself.

First, now is the time to look. Morel mushrooms bloom in spring, and bloom especially well in a damp, overcast spring like we’ve experienced this year. Morels don’t particularly care for dry weather, but when all around you is slightly soaked, that’s when they thrust their heads above the leaf mold.

I have been told, with some authority, that areas two or three years after a burn are a good place to start looking, though that might be a lie, given how secretive morel hunters are. And the times when I have found morels, they haven’t been located in formerly burned out areas—at least, not recent formerly burned out areas. Still, enough people have said it that if I were looking for morels myself, that is where I would start.

Second, I’ve read on the Internet that morels like the shade of certain trees: poplar, elm, ash, and sometimes even fruit trees, like apple. If you go out into our Northwest woods, you’re not going to find many of those deciduous trees... if you find a tree that sheds leaves in the fall, it will more likely be a cottonwood than anything else, and cottonwoods aren’t in the lists of preferred morel shade. Nonetheless, I have found morels near cottonwoods; they are a tree, after all, that prefers damp and plentiful water, and where they grow, morels can too.

Even more often, however, when I have spotted morels, trillium flowers have been nearby. A tri-petaled white flower with a golden center (at least, the ones I have seen have looked that way), the trillium also likes damp, slightly ashy soil, but don’t pick the flower, no matter how pretty... it can take years to recover, if it does at all.

There is a certain technique to finding things in the forest, which works for morels as much as it does for anything else. At the risk of sounding mystical (because I am not a mystical person at all), let me say you must simply ‘be’ in the woods.

Jesus (or Matthew or just some guy who wrote something down that became a  part of the Bible, depending on your point of view) said, “Seek, and ye shall find,” but he wasn’t talking about morel mushrooms.

If you look for them, you won’t see them. Morels are best found when spotted out of the corner of your eyes. I can’t explain why this is, but everyone I have ever seen with a cache in hand has averred that this is the case. Of course, they could be lying again, but I suspect there is likely some great, spiritual truth to this. Not that I know what it is. All I can tell you is morels are best found when you’re not actively looking for them.

If you haven’t seen a morel before, Google some images to familiarize yourself with their appearance. The top looks... well, some say like a brain but I think they look more like some fancy bath sponge, with their honeycombed surface. In addition, the entire mushroom itself has a slightly phallic appearance—though that may just be my impression.

After you have familiarized yourself with what they look like, head out into the woods and relax. Take time to savor spring. Notice everything around you. Immerse yourself in the glories of nature. And pay attention to what catches your eye for a second look.

But even after familiarizing yourself with the look, take any mushrooms you gather into your local extension office, to ensure they’re safe to eat. (The false morel, so-called because it looks much the same as what must be called the “true morel,” is poisonous.)

When collecting morels, use a mesh bag, like those you get onions in at the market, so that, as you hike back out of the woods, spores will be shed to ensure the next season’s crop of wild mushrooms.

Looking back on this, I realize it’s not a very precise guide for finding morels, but maybe that’s a good thing. Because morels, I’m given to understand, are not your reward for searching; they are, instead, your treat for heading out into the woods, and appreciating the beauty that nature has provided for you here in the Pacific Northwest.

There are those who have said they have been (at least somewhat) successful in cultivating morel mushrooms, but I’ve never met these people, or seen a cultivated morel myself. If you have successfully done so, or know someone locally who has, I’d like to hear about it.

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

mushrooms, morel, trillium, foraging, mushrooming

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