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How hunting for morels (or any other thing we’re after) can sometimes make us April Fools.

Fortunately, learning to hack the very same part of the brain that sometimes fools us can actually help us focus on and find what we want. Morel mushrooms included.

UPDATE Spring 2020: Obviously I still hope you’re having a great spring and gearing up for the foraging season in earnest, but it sure looks a lot different this year, doesn’t it? Between quarantines, a global pandemic, and last night here in Idaho, a 6.5 EARTHQUAKE, life is feeling a bit like one big April Fools’ joke.

Personally, I’m taking comfort in the the blessedly normal turning of the seasons — things are blooming and fruiting around the same time as they do every year, and hopefully will for years to come. I’m using this extra quarantine and social-distancing time like I do the winter season; to plan, research, and learn in order to be in the best place to pick up with foraging as soon as possible. Fortunately here in Boise, it’s still possible to get outside and look around close to home while maintaining social distance, and I’d encourage you to do the same as often as you safely can. But if you do so, please maintain plenty of space (not hard for a mushroom hunter LOL) and treat communal locations and surfaces as if they’re contaminated. Wash your hands often 😉

How are you handling spring foraging alongside social distancing? Let me know in the comments!

Spring is morel season!

I hope you’re all having a great spring so far, gearing up for the foraging season in earnest! Here in southern Idaho, morels are a couple of days to a couple of weeks from popping out. I’ve found them in my city as early as April 5th, but it seems like the massive spring growth of things like nettles and miner’s lettuce (which tend to crop up at the same time as morels) is running a bit late, so I expect I won’t find any for another week or two.

But I’ve definitely been out looking, and every bit of likely-looking dried leaf or mushroom-shaped lump of mud reminds me of the time I found this little guy:

chewed pine cone is a morel mushroom look-alike

I’ve dubbed him Morchella fauxrelle, with the common name “Fools’ Morel”. When I found him around 9 years ago, for just a moment I was SUPER excited, thinking I’d identified my very own patch of morels. I had experience finding them up in the mountains with my parents, but I’d been working hard trying to find some on my own in the completely different habitat we have down here in my city. (Mixed conifer forests in the mountains versus primarily cottonwood and maple trees on river bottom here in the valley.)

Alas, I was a fool.

It was obvious when I picked it up it was not fungal and was in fact light, dry, and papery. So, definitely not a fungus, but I was stumped as to what it could be. I brought it home and Googled images and typed in descriptions without any luck.

The Reticular Activating System and morel look-alikes

Fortunately, we all have something in our brains called the Reticular Activating System, which, in a nutshell, helps us focus on things we need or want to, and filter out things we don’t. (It also plays a big part in confirmation bias, but that’s another story.)

Here’s a nifty video from that explains this part of our brain quite nicely, if you have an extra 4 minutes.

Among other things, the RAS is what makes us feel like everyone is driving a black Honda, right after we decide it’s the exact vehicle we’d like to purchase.

So despite being “sure” I’d never seen one of these papery false morels before, I suddenly began seeing them quite frequently on my foraging expeditions. None were quite as morel-like as the first one, but mysterious all the same.

Happily, a few days later I found a small pile of them in various “stages” and was finally able to figure it out.

It was a pine cone!

Had to smack myself on the forehead for that one. This bit shown below is what results when a squirrel or chipmunk chews the scales off of a cone to get at the tasty seeds. Often, they only chew off a few of the scales so it still looks like a pine cone, but perhaps it was a lean spring that year and squirrels were extra vigorous in their pursuit of the seeds.

pine cone with the scales chewed off
A pine cone with the scales chewed off does a great job masquerading as a morel mushroom.

Because I was really focusing on looking for morels, that same Reticular Activating System I mentioned earlier was calling out every morel lookalike it could. My brain was practically shouting, “Is THIS one? How about THIS? Or even, THIS?” I also didn’t immediately recognize it as a familiar pine cone because I was “sure” it must be something entirely new. It’s so easy to fool yourself!

I found lots of other things that looked like morels (cottonwood leaves, fir cones, dog poop – no joke, unfortunately) before I found the real thing a few weeks later. It was definitely frustrating, but ultimately a good learning experience. During that spring I got very familiar with looking for morels in a new-to-me habitat. And when I finally did find them just a few weeks later, it was like I’d won the lottery!

All of those false starts were just evidence my brain was learning to focus on something I’d overlooked before, figuring out what did, and didn’t, fit in the category “morel”.

How to train your brain to find morels, when you can’t find any morels to begin with

If you’re just learning how to find morels, or another edible mushroom or wild food, try taking advantage of your Reticular Activating System to help you focus and you may reach your goal more quickly.

Google images and keep an eye on seasonal mushroom groups

You can assist your efforts by looking at lots of images of what you’re after, and in the case of mushrooms, finding and handling real specimens from a store or farmer’s market. Just about any mushroom identification or local foraging group on Facebook will have seasonal examples of what’s beginning to fruit in your area of the country. So watch those to get a sense of when to start looking.

(Extra mushroom-finding karma points if you’re a good Facebook group citizen and use the search function to see if your question has already been answered. The admins will probably appreciate you too.)

Do plenty of research online and in books

If you’re interested in learning more about foraging for mushrooms, please visit my very comprehensive post on how to find morels in Idaho (and other worldwide locations with similar conditions) here. I’ll be adding posts on other edible mushrooms and wild foods as the seasons progress.

two pink flowering dogwood blossoms
In our area, flowering dogwood and lilac trees are often blooming at the same time as morels are fruiting – but not always!

Document and track your own efforts

It also helps to keep a record of your finds (and any associated plants that may bloom or fruit at the same time) in a calendar. so you can build your own hyper-local fruiting chart. I made a specific foraging and planting “almanac” in Google Calendar so I get automatic reminders each year as things come into season. (Let me know in the comments if you’d like me to make a tutorial on how I did that. I find it quite handy.)

Keep trying!

When you begin looking for a new wild edible, (or try to learn anything new) you’re likely to have a few false starts just like I did. But take them as a sign your brain is beginning to focus on the right outlines. Keep going and you’ll quickly learn how to filter. Each thing you find that isn’t what you’re looking for, is just one step closer to finding the very thing you’re after.

So no need to feel foolish!

~Krista, The FunGal Forager

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Fools Morel Post Pin