Where Do Morel Mushrooms Grow?
I’m not sure about your neck of the woods, but around here, we have two types of morel mushrooms: black and yellow. The black morels grow first, typically around the end of May, beginning of June, but that can change depending on how early warm weather comes and how much snow fell over the winter. If May seems to be particularly warm, you can likely find the black morels earlier in the month, but if it’s still cold throughout May, early June may be the best time to find them. They have a very short growing season, they like moist – yet not soggy – ground, they like the shade – but also a bit of sun, – and are often found around dead leaves and trees. They like to grow around calypso orchids (lady slippers) and pasque flowers, which also tend to bloom early in the summer season, and tend to show up when around aspen trees, when the leaves are about the size of a quarter. If you can find a dried up river or creek bed, you’ve likely found a great spot to start looking.
They blend in very, very well and you can pass them up quite easily. You can be on your hands and knees, scanning the ground with eagle eyes, and you’ll pass them up – they hide quite well. They look like little pine cones standing up, and when you find one, odds are there are more. I’m not sure if elevation plays a role in morel mushrooms, but I’ve found them from 5,000 feet to 8,000 feet above elevation. They tend to like the Rocky Mountain weather, but they grow coast to coast.
The yellow morels start sprouting up after black morel season. They love cottonwood trees and are typically found alongside rivers. Here, they’re mostly found along the Colorado River, where the cottonwood trees love to bloom as well. I can’t give much more information on yellow morels, because I haven’t personally found any, but I do know that they start popping up when the cottonwoods are in bloom and they also have a short growing season. They like dead trees and leaves.
I have a honey hole for the black morels, but as mushroom hunting goes, people don’t typically tell their spots. If you find a good spot for yellow morels, make sure to let me know ;)!
I’ve read that morels like to grow in burn areas too, which includes campfire rings. They supposedly grow rabid in previous forest fire areas, up to 3 years afterward. Commercial morel hunters hit burn areas every year to gather their mushrooms. I haven’t discovered any, yet, but there was a forest fire in our area 2 years ago, so I’m definitely hitting that area this year.
How to Identify Morel Mushrooms?
Beyond their crazy brain-looking cap – that can be black/brown or yellow – their stocks should be hollow. There are false morels that look identical to edible morels, but their stocks aren’t hollow. Make sure the stocks are hollow, and if you aren’t sure, cut the mushroom in half, if it’s hollow all the way through, it’s the edible type of morel. If you find morel mushrooms with dried caps, you can bring them back to edible status by doing a saltwater bath, where you soak the mushrooms in 2 cups of cold water and 1 tsp of salt for at least 30 minutes.
If you can find a mushroom hunter that knows what he or she is doing, have them help you identify your first morel mushroom. You don’t want to be wrong with mushrooms – it can be deadly. Here in Colorado, we have many wild, edible mushrooms that grow throughout the summer, and there are lots of opportunities to learn more about foraging the area: find a local that enjoys foraging, sign up for a foraging class, or ask a forest ranger, just be sure you know what you’re eating before you ingest anything.
If you live here in Colorado, Telluride has one of the nation’s biggest mushroom festivals, held annually, that offers a great way to learn more about mushrooms. There’s also a great field workshop held in Aspen every year by a Colorado mycologist Vera Evenson and Dr. Andrew Wilson, called Colorado Mushrooms Field Workshop (so original, I know). Neither of these events is free, but if you’re really into mushrooms, they’re well worth the money. And finally, if you’re in the Denver area, there’s the Colorado Mycological Society that meets throughout the summer, the second Monday of the month.
How to Clean Morel Mushrooms?
You could ask 10 different mushroom hunters the right way to clean morels, and they’ll all have a different opinion. When I clean mine, I wait until I’m about to cook them and give them a quick dip in a big tub of cold water. You’ll see the dirt and grit float away. Pull the mushrooms out of the water, and set on a towel in a single layer. I then let them sit out on the counter for about an hour or two. The towel soaks up a lot of excess water and will likely be soaked after the few hours you let them sit. If you’re not able to cook them after they’ve sat, it’s okay to place some paper towels in the bottom of a baking pan, load the mushrooms on top, and store in the refrigerator overnight. The first time I did this, I was scared to death that they’d be soggy the next day, but with unexpected guests coming over for a visit, I had no other option. The good news is that they were perfectly fine the next day.
Morel mushrooms can become soggy after cleaning them in a water bath, which is why you should keep them dry – stored in a paper bag in the refrigerator – until you’re ready to cook them. When you’re done cleaning them, throw the dirty mushroom water in an area where the mushrooms could regrow next year – a tip I learned from a member of our local Facebook foraging group.
Some would tell you to NEVER touch morels with water, because of the sogginess issue, but when you see how much yuck comes off of them when you dunk them in water – including bugs and worms – you’ll be glad you dipped them in the water. I’ve heard of people finding worms and slugs, which kind of freaks me out. I read somewhere that sitting the mushrooms in the freezer for 15 minutes (just before cooking them) can help draw out unwanted creatures, which is another great step to add to the cleaning process.
What are the Best Morel Mushroom Recipes?
I suppose it depends where you’re from, but I’m from the south, so slicing the morels in half (and giving the insides a check for hidden dirt and critters), mixing together a batter, and frying them up is one of my favorite ways to eat them – you can never go wrong with fried mushrooms. They’re also delicious sliced and then sauteed in oil and butter (add butter at the end to keep it from burning). I’ve heard of people eating them between bread slices – I suppose a morel mushroom sandwich? Here’s a morel white steak sauce recipe that is simply divine, and know that if you have too many mushrooms on hand (oh, what a problem), you can always dry them for later use. A recent tip from a friend said that mushroom dust is amazing on steaks, too – being a steak fan, I’ll definitely be trying this one soon.
Morels have a very delicate, earthy taste, and tend to take on the flavors that you cook them in. Experiment away with your recipes, but usually keeping things simple is the best way to enjoy morels: a little butter and oil, perhaps a dash of salt and pepper, and maybe some minced shallots (just a bit).
Can Raw Morel Mushrooms Be Eaten?
You shouldn’t eat any wild mushrooms raw. Even the safe to eat mushrooms have toxins in them. Those toxins get neutralized when the mushrooms are cooked. The truth is, the list of raw, edible mushrooms is quite short. To learn more about the dangers of eating raw mushrooms, this is a great write-up.
–* 2019 Colorado Morel Mushroom Update *–
We started hunting morel mushrooms after accidentally stumbling upon one growing in the forest and fellow hiker we were with knew exactly what it was. That was probably 5 years and we’ve been hooked on mushroom hunting every since.
We’ve since hunted for puffballs, hawk’s wings (these are the hubby’s favorites), chanterelles, porcinis/king boletes, and oyster mushrooms. We have been able to find and enjoy all of those mentioned, except for chanterelles and oyster mushrooms – but the hunt continues.
Since we started looking for mushrooms those few years ago, we’ve learned a lot in that time, have joined fellow mycologists, joined the Colorado Mycological Society, and have enjoyed learning more and more about mycology in general. Below are a few of our key takeaways to help with your future hunt.
Scientfic Names of Mushrooms
In the mycology world, it is preferred to use the scientific name to identify a mushroom. This is because there can be very similar mushrooms to the mushroom you’re referring to; for example, there are what are called morels and false/fake morels. Using those terms can be dangerous, thus the preference for the scientific name of the mushroom. See below for a list of the mushrooms I’ve listed so far.
- Puffballs: Lycoperdon perlatum, pyriforme; Calvatia gigantea, cyathiformis
- Hawk’s Wings: Sarcodon imbricatus
- Chanterelles: Cantharellus cibarius
- Porcinis/King Bolets: Boletus edulis, rubriceps
- Oyster Mushrooms: Pleurotus ostreatus; P. populinus
- Morels: Morchella esculenta; M. elata
- False/Fake Morels: Verpa, Gyromitra (although, not all verpa and gyromitras are known to cause poison; in fact, I saw this cause quite a debate; make sure to do your research, ask, and learn)
Mushroom Hunting Etiquette
Who knew there would be so many unwritten (and written) rules to hunting mushrooms! Turns out, there’s a lot and the easiest way to lose the trust of a fellow mushroom hunter is to heed the official and unofficial etiquette. Here are a few that I’ve learned are crucial know-how.
These tips are for beginner mushroom hunters.
- When wanting to get identification of a mushroom, it’s best to do as much of your own research as possible. Pull out your favorite mushroom book, do some Internet searches, and reverse image searches. Sharing what you think the mushroom is shows that you at least tried to identify the mushroom.
- Take note of what elevation you found the mushroom, what aspect (the direction the slope is facing), trees, plants, soil, location, date, and weather. These are good notes for yourself but help with identification as well.
- When taking pictures to share for identification, take a picture of the side, top, underneath, and sometimes middle of the mushroom.
- Spore prints are fun to make and can help with identification. Spores can be made on black or white paper or glass – depending on the spore colors.
- Facebook groups like the Colorado Mycological Society (Colorado Mushroom Club) are a great resource for helping to identify mushrooms and to continue to learn from other mycologists. If you end up using that resource, it’s definitely worth the $26 to join the club.
- Buy some books on mushrooms and foraging and bring them with you as you hunt the forests to help with identification. I usually keep mine in the car (so I don’t have to carry heavy books around), but like to know they’re close by. If you also like learning about wild, edible plants, the foraging books are a must!
- Positive identification is key – don’t be 99% sure; be 110% sure. Use multiple sources and don’t ever eat anything without knowing exactly what it is. Referring to a mushroom identification expert is best.
- Don’t mix wild mushrooms when cooking.
- Never eat raw mushrooms.
- Before you venture out hunting for a particular species, learn what look-a-like mushrooms there may be.
- Little Brown Mushrooms (LBMs) can be almost impossible to identify, even for the experts. It’s best to avoid these little guys.
- If you cut a mushroom and see black or blue staining, it’s best to stay clear of these mushrooms as well.
- Mushrooms are like little sponges that soak up their environment. Mushrooms growing in the forests and away from polluted are the best type to source.
- If you’re mushroom hunting in the National Forest or National Park, you’ll need to get a permit from the Department of Wildlife. If you’re planning on mushroom hunting over the weekend plan ahead – the ranger district is closed on the weekends.
- Don’t over pick. It’s best to leave some mushrooms behind, especially the small/young ones.
- Leave as few traces as possible.
- If it’s fall, wear hunter orange!
- Just as anyone can be allergic to shellfish and nuts, you could easily be allergic to edible mushrooms. Only eat a small, cooked amount at a time. The poison control recommends keeping a raw mushroom separately in a paper bag in the refrigerator as you taste test mushrooms.
- It’s considered rude to ask someone where their mushroom hunting spot is.
Recommended Mushroom Hunting Equipment
After going out a few times getting muddy, fighting off hydration panic attacks, and losing my supplies because I didn’t have pockets, I’ve learned to have a separate mesh backpack just for my forays. In the summer, it usually stays in my vehicle with my pile of books, but it’s super helpful to have everything together. Here are some of my favorite mushroom hunting tools and equipment.
- Mesh Bag (never use plastic; my mesh back can be worn over one shoulder or as a backpack and it has a separate compartment to hold my tools – I love it)
- Mushroom Knife (one with a small brush and easily folds up)
- Vest (it’s great for pockets when I’m not wearing a jacket)
- Rain Jacket
- Elevation Finder
- Soil Thermometer
- Identification Books
- Mud Boots
- Notebook and Pen
- Wax or Brown Paper Bags
- Bug Repellant
- Bear Bell
I like to have plenty of pockets for all of these little tools, which is why a vest works well for me. I attach my compass to my bag and my knife to my pants. Pants work best to keep your legs protected and the walkie-talkies help with communication. The wax or paper bags help with separating species and the bear bell is for protection (I once split from my hubby by about half a mile and started to get the heebie-jeebies being alone).
A Few New Tips and Tricks
- Morels have a five-year grow cycle.
- If it rains, head to the forest – this is prime time for mushrooms to start showing.
- For morels, the best ground temp is between 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Disturbed, burned, or flooded grounds seem to do very well with morel growth.
- They also like older, dying conifers trees, but we’ve found them in moist, grounded aspen groves.
- Morels hold their flavor really well when they are dehydrated, but remember not to eat them unless they’re cooked.