Photo Credit Ron Kerner, Indianamushrooms.com
Morel season is coming soon, April and May. They are hard to find, and don’t last long – a true Midwest delicacy.
For mushroom hunters, spring is the season of the morel mushroom, or morchella esculenta, the yellow morel.
But, finding them is not always easy. Morels make their appearance in the springtime, in April and May, and are commonly found at the foot of particular types of trees. Mushroom hunters know the best places to find them, and although they have their favorite spots, the experts generally agree that one of the best places is the base of elm trees – more specifically dead elm trees. And not just any dead elms, but ones at a particular period of decay. Dead elms shed their bark within the first years of dying, so are easy to spot. Some believe it’s important to catch the elm at precisely this time period, when it’s believed the mushrooms are most often found around the base, i.e. most conducive to the morels growth cycle.
There’s speculation on why the morel chooses this specific location – some experts believe the sap runs down from the tree into the root system, which leads to more fertile ground, which then leads to the cultivation of the mushroom spores. The growth of the mushroom spores is actually a remarkable succession of events, a perfectly timed combination of factors, an example of the perfect synchronization that occurs in nature. The spores actually start their growth 2 years before maturing into mushrooms; i.e. while the tree is still alive. This very specific description of what to look for when searching for dead elm trees, is from the Muscoda.com website:
“The next time you’re driving down the road and see a timbered area look from the top of the tree canopy to about half-way to the ground. Generally, those trees that are missing their bark and whose bare wood is a whitish grey in color are dead elms. You should always keep in mind that dead elm trees which are missing most or all their bark are already past their mushroom-producing days.”
And what’s more, morels prefer particular sides of the tree, at different times during their growth season. Here’s another quote from the Muscoda.com website:
“If all that is not complicated enough, let’s discuss where the morels accompanying a dead elm tree are most apt to be located. If it is early in the season, they will be on the south edge of the timber or on the south facing slope near the top of a hill because he sun warms these areas first. As the season progresses, the morels begin appearing further into the woods, further down the south side of the hills, and near the top of the north facing slope. At last, near the end of the season, they will appear at the north edge of the woods and in the bottomland.”
Residents of Muscoda, Wisconsin know about their morels. Named “Wisconsin’s Morel Capital”, this year the city hosted the 31st Annual Muscoda Morel Mushroom Festival (May 18th and 19th).
And Muscoda is not the only U.S. town that has a morel festival. There’s also the Boyne City, Michigan Morel Festival, the Lewiston, Michigan Morel Festival, the Brown County, Indiana Morel Festival, and this year marked the 54th annual Mesick, Michigan Mushroom Festival. Other festivals can be found from Kentucky to Canada to Wyoming.
What’s so great about morels? If you ask that, then you haven’t tasted the morel.
Sadly, if you want to hunt for morels, it might be too late this year, as they generally make their appearance in April and May. However, you can still find morels in some specialty stores and farmer’s markets. Check out Green Grocer Chicago, 1402 W. Grand, Chicago. Hurry though, supplies are limited!
Groups, Local Mushroom Organizations:
Note: Use caution when selecting mushrooms in the wild. Always consult an expert before eating anything you find. There are no ‘rules’ that apply to all poisonous mushrooms – so it’s hard to identify them if you don’t know what to look for.
A Short Q & A with Ron Kerner of Indianamushrooms.com :
Chicago Farm & Table: When is morel mushroom season, in the Midwest? Is the season extended as you travel further north?
Ron: April through May . Yes the season progresses North.
CF&T: Where are morels found? I read they tend to like to grow around the base of dead elm trees.
Ron: In the woods. Dead or dying elm trees produce abundant morels. Also, ash, poplar, apple, cottonwood trees are also good to look under.
CF&T: What makes morels fond of growing in that particular habitat?
Ron: Morels get their nutrients from trees, so woods are where they are found.
CF&T: Are there any other mushrooms that can be mistaken for the morel, that are poisonous? What’s a ‘false morel’?
Ron: False morels can be poisonous. A Google search will provide more info.
CF&T: What’s a good way to get to know the different types of mushrooms, especially which ones are poisonous?
Ron: A mushroom field guide and talking with a mushroom expert is a good way to learn.
CF&T: What other mushrooms grow in the midwest, and are considered good for eating?
Ron: Oyster, chicken, hen-of-the-woods, giant puffballs to name a few.
CF&T: How did you get interested in mycology, mushroom hunting?
Ron: I was introduced to morel hunting when I moved to southern Indiana 20 years ago. I found many different mushrooms and began learning about them and how to identify them.
CF&T: Do you have any interesting stories about morels?
Ron: A couple years ago I came across a dying elm tree that had 50 large morels growing underneath. Very exciting!
CF&T: Do you have a favorite recipe or two for morels?
Ron: Morels are best with breading and fried in butter and oil.
(originally posted Spring 2013)