How hunting for morels 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!
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 flowering and spring growth of things like nettles, miner’s lettuce, lilac, and dogwood (which tend to occur around the same time morels “fruit”) is yet to come, so I expect I won’t find any morels for another week or two.
But that never stops me from starting to poke around, pretty much as soon as the snow melts, anyway. Fortunately I’ve been doing this long enough I’ve identified several other edible mushroom species like oysters (Pleurotus sp.), Clitocybe brunneocephala (aka “brownits” like their relative, the “blewit”), and various “inky cap” species (Coprinus comatus, Coprinellus micaceus group, etc.) that can tide me over until morel season actually starts.
Even so, the first mushroom that really got me fired up to find was a morel, and at this time of year, every bit of likely-looking dried leaf or mushroom-shaped lump of mud reminds me of the time I found this little guy:
I’ve dubbed him Morchella fauxrelle, with the common name “Fools’ Morel”. When I found him around spring 2010, 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.
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 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. If you do so, please maintain plenty of space (not hard for a mushroom hunter LOL) and wash your hands often 😉
UPDATE Spring 2021: Well, THAT was quite a year, wasn’t it? Honestly I’d forgotten about the earthquake until I went to update this post! A few things happened after that. 😉 Yet here we are at the opening of “mushroom season” again and I’ve been so happy seeing more people outdoors, walking and recreating in the beautiful weather. Fresh air and sunshine is a wonderful mood- and health-booster and we could all use some of that, couldn’t we?
I’m extra, extra, extra, busy this season. During 2020, I took over as President of the Southern Idaho Mycological Association and started a part-time job with my church as their Media Coordinator, both of which changed a lot from what I went into them expecting, due to the pandemic. We moved our mushroom club meetings online, cancelled and modified forays, and our church started live-streaming services, all of which required a whole bunch of new learning for me. (And many of you, too, I’m sure. What new skills did you have to learn last year?) I think/hope it was all valuable effort that will bear fruit for years to come.
I know that 2020 was very, very difficult and that has continued right into 2021 for many of you. I don’t have anything witty or pithy to say about that – just wanted to acknowledge it and let you know I’m praying for your healing and comfort. I hope that in some way sharing my little hobby here helps you learn something that will bring you joy.
The Reticular Activating System and morel look-alikes
So I knew this strange object wasn’t a morel, but what the heck was it?
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 happi-me.org 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.
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.
Use 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.
Samuel Thayer writes wonderful books on foraging. He’s from a different region, but his techniques and many of the plants and mushrooms he forages are available here. Field guides are helpful for identifying all kinds of species. Do a search at your local library and check out a few options for free so you can decide which references you want to purchase for your home library.
Find local foragers
As I mentioned above, Facebook has lots of established foraging and identification groups. But now Instagram and even TikTok have quite a few really legit, fun, and educational personalities who teach on this topic. To find groups or profiles in your area, search for your city or region name combined with “foraging” or “mushroom club” to see what pops up.
You can also check out the FunGal Forager’s profile on TikTok or Instagram and see who I follow, then check them out and see who they follow to find some new accounts. So far I haven’t published any content on TikTok (not sure I will) but I’ve had fun watching and learning.
And if you’re in Idaho or the Pacific Northwest, then *I’m* a local forager and you might want to get on my email list by clicking the button right below and you’ll be the first to know when I have new posts, tips, and insider information available.
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 are likely to come into season. I like having my calendar online because I can set perpetual reminders, but sometimes just jotting down dates and notes in an analog journal is quicker. Whichever method you will actually use and keep up with is the best method.
And finally, but maybe most importantly…
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 and distinguishing characteristics. 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
P.S. For those of you with experience, what kinds of objects have YOU mistaken for morels? I’d love to hear in the comments!