Looking to find your first wild morel mushrooms, but don’t know how? Or have you been lucky enough to find a few you thought were the “real thing”, but would like to be more confident about safely identifying and preparing them?
You’re definitely not alone! And, I’d like to think you’re in the right place to start learning how to find these delicious wild mushrooms–and others–all on your own. There should even be a few tips to help those of you a bit more experienced with foraging learn a new trick or two.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- A Bit of History
- Why won’t mushroom hunters show me exactly where to find morels?
- How to get a mushroom hunter to share information (maybe)
- Where to find morel mushrooms
- Safety tips in a burn area
- How finding one morel will help you find more(ls)
- When to look for morels in Idaho (and in similar climates)
- What to do when you (think you) find a morel: beginner mushroom identification
- What to do when you can’t find any morels
- A discussion of “true morels” vs. “false morels” and “look alikes”
- When you hear “There’s rocket fuel in them thar mushrooms!”
- Where can I get my mushroom finds identified?
- Harvesting and collecting methods for wild mushrooms
- Foraging etiquette
- Safety tips when foraging
- Where to go and what to learn next as a mushroom hunter
- Great resources (books and groups)
Disclaimer: The information I include here is based on my own experience foraging for mushrooms and other wild foods, independent research, and almost a decade being an active member and sometimes Officer in the Southern Idaho Mycological Association. I make every effort to make sure the information I provide here and link to is correct, but I strongly advise against using information from ANY one site or source to attempt to identify and use wild foods. If you collect, forage, or eat mushrooms and other edibles you find, you are doing so at your own risk. Please see my Disclaimer page for more information.
THE CALL OF THE WILD (MUSHROOM)
If you’re like a lot of enthusiastic beginners, you’ve looked in books and asked questions in mushroom ID groups online, and possibly been shot down in the process. Perhaps your well-meaning comments embroiled you in the fiery “Cut vs. Pull” debate and you’re still licking your wounds.
If you’re inexperienced with a field guide or scientific identification keys, and unsure about trusting someone online to give you advice, you may have reached out to a successful mushroom hunter or local vendor to ask “Where can I find morels around here?” or “Do morels even grow in Idaho?” (Spoiler alert: Yes! Morel mushrooms grow in Idaho!)
Depending on your relationship (or lack thereof) with said hunter, their response probably ranged from a sly wink to, “Over that way”, (with a vague arm-wave) to, “Well, maybe I’ll take you hunting with me…sometime.”
If that describes your experience, I understand how frustrating it can be and I’d like to help you learn more so your morel hunts become more productive and enjoyable. And, if you’ll consider a few sustainable practices, your foraging trips might even become a net positive for your local habitat.
FORAGING FOR NOMS: FRUGAL AND FUN
Mushroom hunting (and foraging in general) seems to be all the rage these days. In Idaho, beginning in April and continuing on through midsummer, it’s pretty common to find baskets of wild-harvested morel mushrooms for sale in farmers markets and natural grocery stores, or served up on seasonal tasting menus in restaurants. For the growing number of those who’ve tasted these delicious wild fungi, the opportunity to purchase them right off the shelf with the weekly groceries is a hard one to pass up. But with prices ranging from $20 to $40 per pound depending on seasonal availability, if you’re like me, you’re probably more motivated than ever to see if you can find them yourself, for free. With a bit of help in the information and identification department and a sturdy pair of walking shoes, I’m sure you can!
A BIT OF HISTORY (OR, HOW DO I KNOW THIS STUFF?)
First of all, if you’re the type who just hates the “How I Made This” kind of story that might come before a recipe post, I’ll redirect you to the “In this post” section at the top where you can jump to the sections that might interest you the most. Sure, you’ll miss all the AMBIANCE and my hard work SETTING THE MOOD for you, but I won’t be v bitter. Promise. 😉
Even better…why not purchase a copy of this post as a PDF eBook so you’ll be able to print it out or reference it offline? Why buy something you can get for free online? Because it’s nice. That’s why. 😉 As artist Austin Kleon says, “My blog is free. Not cheap.” Your purchase of what ends up as a 50-plus-page eBook with full-color photographs helps pay for the expenses of hosting my site, so I can continue putting out helpful info and keep my site ad-free.
When I started seriously looking for and studying mushrooms and other wild edibles almost a decade ago, very few people in my home city of Boise, Idaho, knew what I was doing when they happened upon me tromping around the woods with a basket on my arm. But increasingly, other people walking along our gem of a walking path, the Boise Greenbelt, will at least ask, “Are you looking for mushrooms?” And when I say yes, the next question is almost always, “Are you looking for morels? How do you find them?”
I was lucky enough to grow up in Idaho with parents who were pretty good at finding morels and other well-known edibles like huckleberries, and were also willing to share access to our super-secret “family hunting grounds” up in the mountains. (Thanks Mom and Dad!) So I grew up knowing what a few basic wild edibles looked (and more importantly, tasted) like. I could count on a trip or two each spring when conditions were optimal to gather enough to preserve for the following year.
Yet, as I started my own young family, a two-hour drive to the mountains for a hunting trip became less of a “quick trip” and more of a “serious undertaking”. I couldn’t just take off with a buddy when I saw the weather looked right. I had to account for little legs that couldn’t walk too far, snacks, and naps (and my kids required a bit of care, too ;-).
Still, I wanted to be able to hunt for wild food. I just needed to be closer to home where I could dart out during a good time with the kids and be back home for naps in the afternoon. Fortunately, about that time I took a mushroom identification class with the Southern Idaho Mycological Association, (their Facebook page is here) and they shared that morels and other edible mushrooms grew right down here in the city (somewhere anyway ;-).
I’d been finding morels in the mountains for years, so at first I thought I was set. But because I was mostly seeing cottonwood and other deciduous trees here in the valley, versus the evergreen forests where I was used to finding them up high, I couldn’t begin to figure out where along the many miles of the Boise Greenbelt they could be. So I’ve been where you’re at, and I can relate.
WHY WON’T MUSHROOM HUNTERS SHOW ME EXACTLY WHERE TO FIND MORELS?
I can tell you it took me miles and miles of walking, lots of reading and research, and several false encounters before I found my first local morel, all on my own.
Because we care about our preserving our spots
So these days, when someone completely unknown to me comes up and asks where to find these delicious tidbits, or insinuates they’re entitled to a guided tour of spots I’ve identified, observed, and often cleaned up over the span of ten years, perhaps you can understand if I and other hunters hesitate to reveal many details.
Because we don’t know you
After all, I don’t know if you’re the kind of person who would tromp through a patch, harvesting and disturbing everything in sight, (it has happened to me) or the type that strives to make as little impact as possible, maybe even cleaning up some litter along the way.
HOW TO GET A MUSHROOM HUNTER TO SHARE (MAYBE)
Be a curious learner
Still, I love mushrooms and foraging, and I love teaching, so if you’re curious enough to ask me specifically, I do like to help educate and encourage a genuine interest where I can. I know many foragers experience the same conflict; they’re willing to share a fun and educational hobby, but worried about the effect it will have on places that have become near and dear to their hearts.
II think education is one answer to resolve this conflict. I love the resources we have right here in Idaho and the Treasure Valley and want to make sure they’re sustained and protected. So I’ve put together this beginner-to-intermediate guide to finding morels in Idaho (which should also apply to many parts of the country).
Display your enthusiasm
I’m hoping it will help people like you, the enthusiastic novice, get so hooked on researching and finding these treasures that you decide to learn everything you can to help protect the habitats in which they live. Not to mention building a thriving community of foragers that will help keep the knowledge alive. And I know from personal experience that you’re not likely to stop with morels if you have some early success. There’s a world of wild food out there, waiting to be rediscovered, shared, and protected.
Do some research on your own
If you can show you’re patient and curious enough to do the research and persistent enough to do the legwork, then other hunters will know you’re likely to be the kind of person they want out hunting with them. Which makes it much more likely you get invited along on a guided trip; one of the best ways to learn.
Show up as an active participant
I’m afraid a one-time post in a group, asking where to go to find x,y, or z, won’t give most people enough information to trust you with anything other than vague information. Become an active participant in those groups and clubs, however, and you may find your foraging “people”. Foraging friends are the best friends.
With just a few tips, you can join other enthusiasts in a low-cost activity that promotes local eating, exercise, continuing education, and consideration for your community and immediate environment. And in times like these, of such rapid change and uncertainty, it’s pretty nice to be able to fall back on a skill that does all that, and also hasn’t changed much in a few thousand years.
So let’s get started, shall we? P.S. If you’re one of those who wanted to skip the backstory and followed along to this point anyway, thank you and I love you. 😉 <3
FIND LOOK FOR MORELS
Just about everywhere 😉 (At least until you dial-in your “mushroom eyes”)
Morels can grow in a frustratingly wide variety of environments, from sandy river banks populated with hardwood trees to high-elevation conifer forests where the snow banks don’t disappear until mid-summer.
They can fruit on cinder blocks and in mulched gardens; anywhere the spore falls or is blown and finds friendly conditions. So it’s possible that the cagey mushroom hunter wasn’t trying to put you off...they really can grow almost anywhere. However, by learning not just where they can grow, but also where and when they are likely to grow, you can increase your chances of finding morels, instead of just looking.
Okay, but seriously…you can look in cottonwood/hardwood riparian areas
As a fungus, one of a morel’s “jobs” is to break down dead plant matter*. So look for hardwood forests or naturalized areas (such as the edges of a city park or along Boise’s Greenbelt) that have stands of mature trees and saplings, fallen branches or dying trees, and deep leaf litter off which they can feed. If you can find sandy riverbanks nearby, even better!
Common deciduous trees that I’ve found associated with morels are poplar, elm, cottonwood, ash, apple, and birch. So if you can locate large stands or stretches of these trees, you’re in a good area to begin looking.
((*FYI, no one really seems to know if morels are saprobic (feeding on decaying matter) mycorrhizal (in a symbiotic relationship with a plant’s or tree’s root system) something else, or a combination, (the most likely scenario currently) but that doesn’t matter much when it comes to finding them in the first place.)) BTW, Mushroom Expert has a wonderful glossary relating to fungus if you don’t know what some of those terms mean.
In certain bark-mulched areas
In very early spring you may also find clusters of “landscape morels” (Morchella importuna) in areas that were heavily mulched with wood chips the prior year. In the fall, keep an eye out for city projects using chips and you’ll have a few spots to check the next spring. These flushes seem to peter out after just one season, but you might get lucky in a subsequent year or or two.
In mixed-conifer forests
Later in the season, you’ll need to travel higher in elevation to “follow spring” and the subsequent flush of morels. You can begin looking in the mixed conifer forests north of Boise and Horseshoe Bend which can be reached via Forest Service roads. (Motor-vehicle use maps are sometimes available online.) In our area, Douglas fir trees, with their very morel-shaped cones, and older spruce are more likely to be associated with this particular fungus than are other conifers, like pines. However, in other parts of the country, pine forests seem to yield plenty of Morchella. Basically, morels do what they want. Aren’t challenges fun? 😉
In some surprising spots when the weather is unseasonable
As any seasoned morel hunter is likely to tell you, morels grow where they like and there are certainly exceptions to any morel-hunting “rule.” These exceptions may be caused by micro-climates, (e.g., a shady pine next to an underground spring in a dry year), a natural event such as a wildfire, or perhaps just the fun-loving and perverse nature of Morchella in general.
Mushrooms simply need the right conditions to fruit and they seem to be great at waiting years to do so if necessary. I had the delight of finding this giant late-season morel an area that for 5 years was too dry by early May to produce any mushrooms at all. However everything else (like tree and soil type) looked right, so I kept that location in my rotation to check every so often. Sure enough, when I was forced to explore alternate hunting grounds because the Boise River had flooded my usual areas, there it was. Fun day!
In just about any area with objects that look like morels
Seriously, morels are usually well-camouflaged and can almost seem sneaky in their ability to hide. I find that looking at the whole endeavor like some kind of treasure hunt helps a bit on the days you get skunked. (And if that little mindset shift doesn’t help, you can always try making the Bitter Forager’s Rescue–a sumac lemonade and blackberry mocktail I created for just such an occasion.)
There are all kinds of things that can look like morels when you’re desperate to find them – especially early in the season. Chewed-up pine cones, fir cones, cottonwood leaves, dog poop, shadows, holes…you’ll be surprised when you start looking. 😉 But don’t let a few false starts put you off continuing to search. As I discuss in this April Fools’ post, making a few mistakes thinking you’ve found a morel when you haven’t is actually a good sign you’re training your brain to notice the right things. You’ll get there!
In areas of recent disturbance
In addition to looking in deep leaf or needle litter, or in mossy regions of the forest, pay attention to areas of recently disturbed earth such as along hiking and game trails, logging roads, campsites, and even in deep footprints. Every year I find several morels growing inside the footprints of an elk, right alongside packed-earth trails, or inside old fire-rings in a campsite. These are what some people call “natural” morels – those recurring year after year in similar patches. (The type I referred to when I mentioned our family hunting grounds.)
In last season’s wildfire “burns”, as life emerges from a burned forest
However, unusually large quantities of morels can also be found in the spring after a forest has burned in a wildfire. This “flush”, or growth, may continue in the area for several years, decreasing in quantity each spring. These morels are usually a different species than the so-called naturals, but are still delicious. And some burn species, like Morchella tomentosa with their black velvet-covered stems, are my very favorite morel variety to eat.
Hunting a “burn” is a great way to set by a large stock of dried morels because you can often find more, more quickly than you can hiking after “naturals”. You’ll likely need to clean them more than you would naturals (because they’ll be growing in ash and soot), so make sure you allot enough time to eat or preserve what you pick. (I think The Wondersmith, a fellow forager, puts it nicely in this article.)
You’re also more likely to be competing with other hunters, personal and commercial alike, than you would if you take the time to find some good spots where morels return every year. My friend and fellow SIMA-member Kathy R. has this special caution for burn areas, due to the fact that the commercial morel business is primarily cash-based and many pickers and buyers carry guns: “Do not go alone if commercial pickers are in the same area. If you find an “abandoned” bucket of morels…go the other way and don’t be tempted as they often find a lot and can’t carry them all. This has happened to me twice.”
Even so, hunting a burn is a great way to get your feet wet and learn to train your brain to “see” AND notice these camouflage artists. There will be less foliage for them to hide under, and greater numbers mean you might be more likely to see them. And, depending on the size of the wildfire and the subsequent years’ weather, the normally short season may be extended substantially. During 2020, my friends Cina and Mik were finding fresh burn morels north of McCall, Idaho, into October!
SAFETY IN A BURN AREA
A last note if you do hunt in burned areas: be sure to prepare for harsh, dirty conditions and check with the Forest Service in charge of that area, as sometimes free personal-use permits may be required. Being caught harvesting without a permit in this situation could mean incurring a hefty fine and having your hard-earned mushrooms confiscated. You’ll also want to check with the Forest Service to make sure you know if areas have been closed off due to remediation or for safety concerns.
FIND ONE MOREL AND YOU’LL LIKELY FIND MORE(LS)
When you finally DO find your first morel, STOP and take a careful look around, because you’re probably about to step on another one! I find it works best to scan a likely area several times, visually sweeping back and forth, because I tend to register them most often out of the corner of my eyes. When the light is shining at an angle (basically any time during the day except between 11 am and 2 pm) I also find it easier to spot them for some reason. They can be somewhat translucent, so maybe the light shines through, or they cast a bigger shadow, or both.
Go slowly to find more
Morels can grow as singles, but quite often you’ll find twins or even a satisfying baker’s dozen of a cluster growing from one spot. If one is out, there are very, very likely quite a few more in the area. It pays to slow down and look around.
Be sure to scan likely areas (like a clearing covered with last fall’s cottonwood leaves) from a variety of angles to avoid missing those that are camouflaged behind clumps of grass, under fallen leaves, or otherwise hiding in plain sight. They are tricksy beasts!
Morels seem to pop up where you least expect
I often find the first morel of a given walk about the time I need to bend over to tie a shoelace. I’ve typically hiked into an area a bit by then, and later in the day when I backtrack home, I’ll find a few that I missed on the way in. It seems like our brains need to get the filter reset each year to remember exactly what we’re looking for. We probably see the mushrooms, we just don’t notice them until we set our intention.
WHEN TO LOOK FOR MORELS IN IDAHO
Spring-ish (And remember, spring travels up in elevation)
Morels start fruiting in early spring at low elevations. Begin checking areas with likely trees and conditions as soon as the location has been about a week without a hard frost and the daytime temperatures are in the upper 50s to lower 60s Fahrenheit.
When the soil temperature is warm enough
Ground temperatures play a big role too, with the flush often starting when the soil temperature 3-5 inches below the surface reaches about 55-62 degrees Fahrenheit, as long as other conditions are favorable. That number is merely a range, so if you’re checking with a soil thermometer I’d start getting excited when you’re regularly getting readings above 52 or so, about 4 inches under the surface.
Here’s an article from the North American Mycological Association (NAMA) with an in-depth analysis of a few possible temperature predictors for the start of morel season. Essentially, it depends. 😉
And then a bit later in spring
The flush of morels will follow spring conditions up in elevation as the year progresses. Depending on winter snowpack and spring rains, morels can be found well into the summer months up to elevations of 7000′ or more. (They can even be found in the fall in the right situations, but this is much less likely. Once you have a season or two of finding them under your belt, you’ll be able to branch out beyond the most likely scenarios.)
Again, my fellow mycology association member Kathy relates some very helpful personal experience here: “Elevation is critical, i.e., Boise 2700’ in mid-April, McCall 5000’ from the third week of May to the first week of June, Stanley 6000’ from the last week of June to the first two weeks of July, and 10,000’ hikes could have them from August through September.”
Generally, after any area has had several days of warm summer weather (somewhere in the low 80’s), the main harvesting season is over, though you may find isolated pockets where conditions have remained cool and moist enough to support a few.
When other indicator species are emerging
There are a number of “usual suspects”, like trillium flowers, “cup” fungi, arnica plants, and lilac bushes that seem to appreciate similar timing and growing conditions as morels. If you learn to look out for those you’ll get better at guessing when to start checking likely areas so you don’t miss the full range of the season. Take pictures of the other mushrooms, flowers, and plants you find when you’re out hunting and learn to identify them. You might begin to find some known associates of your own.
But use these ideas as indicators–not as rules. If you’re generally experiencing early spring weather, it’s a good idea to go out looking, even if, say, the lilacs aren’t blooming or the cottonwood leaves haven’t yet emerged. You’ll find different microclimates based on the slope of a hill or the sun or shade a given area receives.
A full discussion of the many different indicators and how to track them is beyond to scope of this post, but if you join my email list (there’s a button right below, or a form in the sidebar) I plan to share timely information on indicator species for morels and other edible mushrooms as the season moves along. I’ll also be sure to notify you when I complete recipes, videos, and tutorials like how to design your own seasonal tracking and reminder calendar using Google. Tracking things yourself will yield the best return because you’ll have a calendar specific to your local conditions.
(There’s also my group on Facebook, The Dining Shroom, where people share recipes using mushrooms and other wild-foraged ingredients, and discuss other topics, like indicators, related to foraging in our area. Feel free to click the link and request to join. Be sure to answer the simple questions–don’t think too hard–and I’ll get you approved.)
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU (THINK YOU) FIND A MOREL: MUSHROOM IDENTIFICATION
Also known as “Simple Morel Identification for Food and Noms: How to Not Die Eating Wild Mushrooms”. 😉 Don’t worry, morels are one of the easiest mushrooms to positively identify once you learn a few distinctive features.
Four ways to help identify morel mushrooms
Morels within the genus Morchella* will satisfy each of the following four criteria:
- They are completely hollow-stemmed,
- The cap is attached to the stem/stipe part way to all the way down its length, not just sitting on top like a cap,
- Almost always spring-to-early-summer fruiting,
- Have deep pits and ridges, not wrinkly folds.
*[A note about the word “morel” in this article. This is a common name used to refer to any number of so-called “true” morels in the genus Morchella, and occasionally to so-called “false morels” in the genus Verpa or even Gyromitra.] Because I’m focusing this article on the novice, I’ve chosen to use the word morel (in addition to some Latin names) because it’s most likely what you’ve heard of and were searching for. *I* use the word morel to refer only to species in the genus Morchella, and use Verpa or Gyromitra when that’s what I’m referring to. You’ll find that others may include several genera under the umbrella of “morel”, so just be aware that you might run into different preferences.
Make friends with binomials, or scientific names!
Having to use disclaimers like quotes and “so-called” is one reason you’ll want to begin learning the scientific/binomial names as quickly as possible. =) Common names are not specific and can get very confusing when words used in one part of the world refer to completely different organisms in another. (“Hen of the Woods”, “Chicken”, and “Fried Chicken Mushroom” are all common names for very different mushrooms in various US locations, for example.)
Scientific names can also be confusing, but at least they’re specific and there’s a history when/if the nomenclature changes. 😉 With a bit of repetition you’ll find you learn the Latin names just as quickly as common names. I do tend to use a few descriptive common names here locally because I find them useful and people are unlikely to get confused when you’re standing next to them with the mushroom in hand. But when you’re trying to communicate with someone in another region, or even another language, the Latin names usually reduce mistakes and confusion.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU CAN’T FIND ANY MORELS
First, don’t despair.
Not finding morels is the most likely scenario when you first start out and many have been in your shoes.
So I’m including a link here to a video by Adam Haritan of Learn Your Land. I just love his YouTube channel and find that I usually agree just about 100% with his “take” on things – which doesn’t happen very often. He puts a LOT of effort into his videos and I really couldn’t cover this topic any better myself so I’m happy to send you over to take a look at his video on “6 Reasons You Can’t Find Morel Mushrooms.” He focuses on the Northeast United States, so a few of the most common tree associates will be a little different than here in Idaho, but it’s still helpful information
A FEW WORDS ON “TRUE MORELS” VS “FALSE MORELS” AND “LOOK-ALIKES”
In this section, you’ll learn how to distinguish among the most common species that might be mistaken for an edible morel. You must be cautious, but need not succumb to unnecessary fear.
First of all, they’re not false morels, they’re true whatevers
Many mushrooms in the genera listed below are lumped into the term “false morels”, which you’ve probably heard of and been warned about. They aren’t false morels…they simply are what they are: another species that you can and should learn to identify. Learning to distinguish between similar-looking mushrooms or those that fruit at the same time will give you valuable practice and allow you to broaden the number of edible species you can eventually consume as you learn more.
Verpa species (sometimes called “early” or “false” morels) vs. other morels
In my opinion, Verpa bohemica is probably the closest look-alike to what you might hear called a “true morel”. It’s fooled me more than once into thinking I’d found Morchella, especially early in the season. Fortunately, Verpa bohemica is also edible when cooked thoroughly, just like morels. But because in other situations, mistaking one mushroom for another can make you extremely ill, or even kill you, it’s good to get into the practice of distinguishing precisely among species. (Morchella and Verpa also behave differently in the frying pan so you’ll want to know exactly what you’ve got so you can use the best method to cook them.)
Morels can be distinguished from their closely-related look-alikes in the genus Verpa by slicing in half from tip to stump. Morchella will be completely hollow inside, and the “cap” will be fully attached to the stipe (or stem) at its bottom. Or part way down the cap in the case of M. populiphila/punctipes, known as the “half-free” morel. In Verpa bohemica or V. conica, the cap is only attached at the very top, and may be easily separated from the stipe. Its stem may also be filled with a cottony material, which I understand is actually some of the mycelium.
Gyromitra (sometimes called Calf Brain or Beefsteak mushroom) vs. Morels
Other related mushrooms in the genus Gyromitra may be distinguished in a similar manner. These fungi range from rusty-orange or tan to purple in color with many folds, (like a brain), but not pits. When cut in half, (as on on the right in the picture below) the folds may continue throughout the mushroom, distinguishing it from a true morel, which is hollow throughout.
Some of the species in this genus are edible (see below), but they are not beginner mushrooms because confusing one kind of Gyromitra for another, or preparing them improperly, can be a deadly mistake!
Like true morels, G. esculenta and G. infula often have hollow stems as well. But as you can see from the photos, Gyromitra really don’t look like Morchella at all, unless you’re trying really hard to convince yourself, so you shouldn’t have to worry about mixing them up if you observe the four points above.
Stinkhorns or Phallus spp.
Finally, one other potentially close look alike is the “stinkhorn” (Phallus impudicus or P. hadriani). But it usually fruits in summer to fall, rather than spring (at least here in Idaho), does not possess the same kind of pits, is often covered in a greenish-brown slime, and may stink to high heaven. Not likely to be mistaken once you get up close!
Here’s a video I made in a neighbor’s garden where I dissect some young Phallus hadriani mushroom “eggs”. Views of the mushroom start at about 2:30. You won’t be able to see the mature mushroom (when it looks most like a morel) but at least you’ll get an introduction to what to look for. A quick Google search using that full species name (DON’T just search the genus name 😉 should show you lots of examples of that particular mushroom.
“THERE’S ROCKET FUEL IN THEM THAR MUSHROOMS!”
Mushroom hunters really have to keep an open mind and maintain a “growth mindset”. Being willing to keep learning and have preconceived notions challenged may open up opportunities you hadn’t considered before.
Until this year, I was operating under the strongly held belief (based on information from field guides, articles, some mycology groups, and other seasoned foragers) that V. bohemica, V. conica, and all species in Gyromitra contained the chemical monomethylhydrazine (MMH), otherwise known as a component of rocket fuel.
Sounds pretty dangerous, right?
Of course no one would want to consume rocket fuel! Best to steer clear! Well, when you’re first starting out and you aren’t used to noticing the kinds of things that you need to, to distinguish one mushroom from another, that’s probably excellent advice. Because there are members of the genus Gyromitra that DO contain Gyromitrin (like G. esculenta and possibly G. infula) which (if I understand the chemistry correctly) converts to MMH in your body. Consuming these mushrooms (or sometimes even inhaling the cooking vapors) can kill you or make you extremely ill without extensive, specific preparation/detoxification.
However, there are others (like G. caroliniana, G. montana, G. korfii, and G. brunnea, not to mention V. bohemica and V. conica) that I’ve since learned have little to no detectable hydrazines and thus should be safe for most people to consume when thoroughly cooked, just like Morchella.
Don’t overestimate your level of knowledge
If you’re not confident in identifying a mushroom down to species, however, you may not be ready to do more than observe those other genera listed above to determine that they aren’t the morels you’re looking for.
However, if you’re willing to learn and do more research, you can certainly get there if you wish to try. Those mushrooms will very likely come back again next season when you’ve gained more practice. Besides, there are PLENTY of other fairly easy-to-identify edible mushrooms that are perfectly tasty. No need to chance poisoning yourself in your enthusiasm.
A group specifically about “false morels”
After nearly a decade, I’m still in the midst of learning about these species myself. So, listing all the information that has changed my mind about the edibility of some of what I always called “false morels” is, again, beyond the scope of this article. (And I don’t want to pass along any incorrect or misleading information in my ignorance.) But, the Facebook group False Morels Demystified has a wealth of knowledge on this exact topic if you’d like to pursue it. There are several very experienced scientists, mushroom identifiers, and advanced mycophagists from around the world moderating the group and they are making an effort to collect and share whatever genuine research has been done on the topic.
I’d recommend joining the group, reading the files section, and lurking for a while before posting. Practice identifying the mushrooms that are posted (to yourself) and see if your answer aligns with the admins’. You’ll get a great education just from that and can start to think of some good questions and/or post the “false morels” you find to get input from experts. It has been truly fascinating to watch this process in the group since it started.
(The “join-read-learn-and-compare before posting” method also works great in any identification group by the way. A bit of time reading and using the search function is a great education and is likely to keep you from getting slapped with what might feel like a bunch negative responses to your first questions. It may be the first time you’ve asked the question, but it’s also likely the 100th time the group has seen a variation of “What is this and can I eat it?”)
Finally, if you are interested in more information on this topic, here are several very reliable and reasonably current resources, each of which have sources cited and/or bibliographies for more information. All are from the excellent magazine FUNGI. The first is an article from spring 2020, by Denis R. Benjamin, MD titled, “Gyromitrin Poisoning: More Questions than Answers.” The second is a spring 2014 article by Michael Beug, PhD titled “False Morels: Age-old Questions of Edibility.” And the last is from the Spring 2015 issue: “Early Morels and Little Friars, or A Short Essay on the Edibility of Verpa Bohemica.”
WHERE CAN I FIND EXPERTS TO IDENTIFY MY MUSHROOM FINDS?
Look for local mycological associations
Experts can be found in mycological associations or clubs (like SIMA, in Boise) at some universities, or in agricultural extensions, and are often willing to help you identify your treasures in person. In my opinion, this is one of the best ways to confirm your educated guesses and learn, because you can handle the mushroom and ask questions in real time. Mushroom clubs often have members from across the spectrum of experience, from full-on mycologists or other scientists to experienced amateurs, to complete beginners. Don’t be afraid to join and ask questions – most members are as enthusiastic as you are and willing to share knowledge.
If you’re near Boise, Idaho, you can click on the SIMA link above to find the Southern Idaho Mycological Association’s website, or follow their Facebook Page. If you’re up in Northern Idaho or Eastern Washington you can also check with the North Idaho Mycological Association (NIMA) for local information. Finally, if you’re from elsewhere in North America, the “mycological associations” link in the paragraph above will take you to the affiliated clubs page of the North American Mycological Association (NAMA).
You can also find online groups aimed specifically toward identification, (here’s a new-ish one for Idaho and the surrounding region) or those focused more on education and discussion, by searching Facebook for some combination your city or region name + “identification” or “foraging”. Once you find one, Facebook will usually start suggesting others related groups to try.
Groups will sometimes include mycologists and/or other field experts and can be a great way to interact with some of the people who literally “wrote the mushroom book” you might be reading. They can also include people who are just starting out, or who know a lot less than they think they know and share those opinions freely (see the Dunning-Kruger effect to learn about how we’re pretty good about fooling ourselves that way). So exercise caution and do a bit of background research on the person posting or commenting before you take their word for it.
I still think nothing beats in-person expertise if you can find it, but online groups may be all you have to begin with. Utilize those resources to improve your level of knowledge, but don’t necessarily depend on them for a first-time identification of a mushroom, especially from a photograph. Find a knowledgeable person familiar with your particular location if at all possible. Once you’ve had this done a time or two and you’ve seen and handled the look-alikes in person, morels, even with their varied colors and shapes, are very difficult to mistake. At this point, you’ll need to consider:
HARVESTING AND COLLECTING METHODS FOR WILD MUSHROOMS
Cut or pinch at the base
To harvest most mushrooms, I like to cut or pinch it at the base, above the dirt line, and place it in either a mesh collection bag or a basket. This avoids unnecessarily disturbing the area were the mushrooms are growing, and helps keep them from getting sweaty and/or crushed as you walk around collecting.
You may have heard that this also aids in spore distribution; while I certainly don’t think it hurts, if you’re picking mature mushrooms, then they’ve already been busy releasing hundreds of thousands of spores and you’re not likely to help them much more with your efforts. But because it also helps keep the mushrooms in good condition while you hunt, porous receptacles are a win-win. Can’t hurt.
Non-porous containers, like plastic grocery bags, often make mushrooms sweaty, which is a breeding ground for spoilage bacteria. I think at least some so-called mushroom poisonings are more likely garden-variety food poisoning from consuming old, spoiled, or undercooked mushrooms.
Pull it up from the base and then trim the dirt~Yep, I said it.
You can also gently pull the mushroom up from the base and trim the dirty end before placing it in your basket. This keeps from spreading more grit over the rest of your delicious mushrooms. If you’d like to start a war, join a mushroom group and take a firm stance on one side or the other of “Cut” vs. “Pull”.
I dare you.
(Actually, don’t do that. Moderators and admins in mushroom groups are great people doing a lot of usually free work to help educate. Please don’t make their job harder!)
Here’s another Fungi Magazine article, and a link to a summary of a long-term scientific study on the subject of “should I cut or pull a mushroom?” if you’d like to ease your conscience either way. (TL:DR? Spoiler alert! It doesn’t really matter to the life of the fungus if you cut it or pull it…and pulling *may* slightly favor increased growth.) At the end of the day, I simply try to make as little impact on my collecting areas as possible, so they continue to produce long into the future.
The following is my opinion. You’ll find a wide variety of opinions and facts presented if you look – but this is what I’ve learned from other foragers I respect, so it’s what I do.
Don’t pick all of a given plant or mushroom that’s in the area
For one thing, the plants, fungi, and fruit in a given habitat serve many purposes, much of which we don’t fully understand. For another, it’s rarely necessary. If you’re reading this, it’s unlikely you’re starving, so there’s simply no need to take 100%, or even most of, any foraged item from a given area. Walk a bit further if there’s not as much as you’d like, or substitute something else that’s fruiting that’s more abundant.
But not because it harms a fungus to pick them
Incidentally, you’re not harming or diminishing a fungus by harvesting the “mushroom” portion. That is the “fruit” of the organism, and picking it, even if you picked every one you could see, is no more harmful than picking apples from a tree. (See the Fungi Magazine article above for more information.) The majority of the organism is underground in the mycelium, happily networking away and waiting for ideal conditions to fruit and reproduce in that manner. (They also have other ways to do so).
On the other hand, harvesting every plant you see, could most definitely deplete stocks of that organism, so never take the last one, or harvest from an area with just a few of a given plant. While it’s not directly harmful to take every last mushroom in an area, in my opinion it’s just bad practice. Leave some for the forest, other animals, and fellow foragers, even if it’s “just going to rot”. Learn to deal with a bit less. Only take what you can eat, preserve, and/or share.
On the other hand, if the zombie apocalypse happens, we’ve got bigger problems on our hands, so feel free to adjust harvesting practices as you see fit. (UPDATE FOR 2020: The current pandemic is NOT the zombie apocalypse, so you’re not off the hook for being a responsible harvester. 😉
SAFETY TIPS WHEN FORAGING FOR MOREL MUSHROOMS
Don’t eat it if you don’t know what it is
Identifying morels is relatively simple as far as mushrooms go. However, one should never consume any food without knowing for certain what it is. Just don’t. While there are fewer mushrooms that can kill or harm you than there are plants that can do so, some varieties ARE deadly. I’d encourage you to watch the video I linked – it’s funny and catchy and a great reminder for all of us.
Always cook morels thoroughly
In addition to making 100% sure of your identification, morel mushrooms and their relatives should ALWAYS be thoroughly cooked. They contain a toxic substance, not well understood, that is rendered safe for most people, with cooking. Sautéing, baking, or roasting thoroughly will all do the trick.
Test a small sample first
Mushrooms of any kind can cause allergic reactions in susceptible people. So the first time you consume a new-to-you wild mushroom, make sure to only eat a small amount (1-2 bites) and set aside a raw sample. Wait 24 hours to make sure no symptoms appear before consuming more. (The raw sample is for testing purposes if you do have some kind of a reaction.) Here’s some information from the North American Mycological Association on different types of mushroom poisonings. No need to be frightened, but do be cautious and aware. Do your research and consult multiple sources when making an identification for consumption.
Stay aware of your surroundings
When you go out foraging, always be aware of your surroundings, including the time of day. It’s easy to get lost when you’re just looking at the ground, so make sure you look up and back the way you came often to keep your bearings. Remember, the way back is behind you, so you wan tto know what the path looks like from that direction. Make sure you have time to get back to your vehicle or campground before nightfall, which can come faster/earlier in the mountains than you expect.
Take a foraging friend along
If you’re going up into the forest, or anywhere remote, take a buddy and make sure to go prepared with food and water. Make sure someone back home knows where you’re going and when you plan to be back. It’s all too easy to slip in a hole and injure yourself badly enough that you can’t walk out by yourself. And if you’re remote, your cell phone isn’t going to be any help.
Don’t come back with extra little “friends”
Ticks are a scourge and can carry several nasty diseases. Gnats and mosquitoes can also be very irritating. Wear protective clothing and use repellent, especially when you plan to be walking through brush. Exchange a once-over with your foraging buddy before you head back home to make sure you haven’t picked up any obvious “riders” on your back and around hairlines. (A lint roller works really well to trap creepy-crawlers. I keep one in my foraging bag all season.) Finally, before you go to bed that night, take a shower and make sure you check all your own “cozy bits” for unwanted visitors. Safely remove them with tweezers or a “tick key” you can find at most outdoor stores.
Closely observe an bites for redness and rashes, and get check out by a physician if anything shows up.
Carry maps, apps, a compass, and extra batteries
There are some very useful mapping apps you can carry on your phone, but again, if you’re going to be in a remote area, you won’t be able to download area topographic maps when you get there. Make sure to download in an area where you have a signal so you can use them offline. These apps are very useful for marking where you parked, tracking your path, and noting good harvesting spots.
And none of that will be of any use if your phone’s battery dies (or you lose or destroy your phone somehow) so carry an extra battery charging pack or two, as well as paper topo maps and a physical compass. And make sure you learn how to use the map and compass before you go into the forest! These days, if you don’t know someone who can teach you, or can’t find a hunter-safety course to take, you can find a great deal of information on “YouTube University” merely by searching for the skill you want to learn.
WHERE TO GO AND WHAT TO DO NEXT AS A MUSHROOM HUNTER
Other than doing your research, the most important part of learning to find morels is to get out and start looking!
Use the information from this article to locate some likely areas and begin poking around. Investigate Facebook groups, purchase some field guides, (or check them out from the library) and start handling all kinds of mushrooms to get familiar with how they’re the same, and how they’re different.
Ask questions and keep looking. The more often you get out there, the closer you’ll get to finding that first one, or to finding more than you used to.
It’s quite possible that your first batch of morels will be the gateway to a new hobby. The kingdom of Fungi comprises many fascinating subjects and, now that you’re paying attention to the ground and shuffling through duff, you’re going to meet many more of them. By joining a mycological society, club, or a group interested in local food foraging, you will improve not only your ability to find morels and other edibles, but also your awareness of the amazing and critical contributions fungi make to our planet.
It’s spring here in the Treasure Valley, so get out and start looking! If you’re local, sign up for SIMA’s ID class, and if you’re not, consult NAMA to find a group in your area. And remember, members of my email list will always get the first information about new posts, products, and recommendations. You can sign up for that at the button right below. (You’ll need to confirm your subscription once you sign up by replying to the email from Mailchimp. If you don’t see it, check your Spam or Promotions folder.)
I would love to hear about your mushroom-finding adventures in the comments, or by having you contact me at the FunGal Forager ~Krista
- North American Mushrooms: A Field Guide to Edible and Inedible Fungi; Orson and Hope Miller
- Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest; Joe Ammirati and Steve Trudell
- All That the Rain Promises and More; David Aurora
- The North American Mycological Association (throughout North America)
- The Southern Idaho Mycological Association (website for a NAMA club local to Southern Idaho)
- Mushroom Expert: This site is chock full of great info for beginners to experts.
- Mushroom Observer: A collaborative place to record your finds or search for species in your area.
- Participate in the Fungal Diversity Study (FunDiS) as a citizen-scientist!
- Facebook Pages and Groups:
- The Southern Idaho Mycological Association (the Facebook page for SIMA)
- The North Idaho Mycological Association (Facebook for a NAMA club in Northern Idaho)
- False Morels Demystified: The place to learn about all things “false morel”. Read the files!
- Fungus Identification: A place to start asking about your general finds. Read the pinned post!
- Idaho Fungus and Identification: Post good pictures and descriptions of your Idaho-region finds here to request IDs
- Plant Identification: Some help with wild plant identification.
- The Dining Shroom: My group. Kinda partial to it. Cutest mascot ever.
- Melfies: For your selfies with mushrooms. If you already have these on your camera, come join your people. It’s one of the happiest places on Facebook. Might even see a love story unfold.
- Fungi in Hand: If you’re the curious kind, you’ll end up with hundreds of pictures of fungi in your hand. This is the place for those pictures.