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Retro WON: Gretchen Steele tells you how to find morels and shoot them, too!

It’s April, spring is spring, turkeys are gobbling, and legions of morel mushroom hunters are headed to the forests and the creek bottoms, the bluffs and berms all in search of the mystical, ethereal, magical morels. Grab your ’shroom sack, walking stick, camera and head on out. It’s the perfect time to get out in the spring woods and capture those “Morel Moments.”

Previously I’ve talked about how to photograph mushrooms in general here. But morels – oh morels, special, succulent and sought after; they require a little extra effort.

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Photo by Gretchen Steele

The key with morels is to find them. There are many myths, stories, suggestions about how and where will one find morels, but the simple truth is; morels can appear most anywhere; seemingly overnight or between a lunch and breakfast foray. One moment – it’s bare forest floor; the next there’s a stand of “Big Yellas” as far as the eye can see.

When and Where

Morels generally appear through most regions of the United States in the early spring. Here are some signs that you should observe:

  • Trees are beginning to bud
  • A quick finger poke into the rich forest humus reveals that the soil is beginning to warm
  • Flagship wildflowers begin to make an appearance: trillium, phlox, trout lily, Dutchman’s breeches, violets, May apples, wild strawberries and many more.
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Photo by Gretchen Steele

When the weather has warm rainy days and nights, with temperatures ranging between high 50s at night to high 70s in the daytime,  it’s time to gather up your stick and sack and set out.

Dandelions and lilacs, apple blossoms and spawning crappie are all good indicators that it’s time to hit the woods. Spring turkey season also coincides with morel season in many areas.

The “where” isn’t quite as simple. Where the spores fall, cross pollinate and germinate is basically where morels will grow — and that can be virtually anywhere from an old apple orchard to a compost pile. Black morels (which appear first) tend to be more exclusively in hardwood forests, but not around any particular type of tree. Finding them is often like a connect-the-dots game. When you find one, be still and look nearby. Mark that first morel you spy with your stick.  SIT DOWN, look around at ground level, you will most likely be rewarded with masses scattered all the way around you. Follow the trail of mushrooms up or down hill. Blacks will generally lead you along waterways, creek banks, and hillsides. Envision the way the spring rain water would flow on the ground and that will help you connect the black morel dots. Black morels are much more pattern related in their appearance than the other varieties.

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The lineup. Photo by Gretchen Steele

White and yellow morels, which appear later than the blacks are frequently found in forests, fields, orchards, fence rows, hedgerows, islands, railroad tracks, floodplains and grown-over strip mines. Disturbed ground such as old home sites and junk piles are notorious for producing the white giants.

Unlike the blacks, the whites sometimes tend to congregate around certain types of tree, often a tree that is in a death throe – bark peeling, limbs dropping, rotting down at the base. Look for bigger, older, fading away elm, ash, sycamore, cottonwood, and silver maple.  If you find a great “morel tree” that is producing; mark the spot. It’s not unusual for the same tree to provide you with spongy sweetness for as long five years!

What to wear – What to carry

When you head out to the woods, it’s prudent to wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt for protection. There can be brambles and poison ivy, the occasional spider web and weather elements to consider. Make sure your clothes and your walking shoes are comfortable. Be sure to liberally apply insect repellent as ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers and morels thrive in same places. Don’t forget your camera! The spring forest floor is filled with photo opportunities! A compass, whistle (for hailing), drinking water and snack are all good things to also have along on your foray. If you will be traversing ditches and creeks a good pair of waterproof knee boots is a must.

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Photo by Gretchen Steele

The most important item, however, is your collection bag. NEVER use paper or plastic bags, regardless of handy they may seem. Plastic is fungi’s mortal enemy. After a long foray you will return home to find sludge of soggy broken, slimy yuckiness in the bottom of that plastic grocery or bread sack. JUST SAY NO to plastic mushroom collection bags, please!

These types of bags don’t allow mushroom spores to return to their natural habitat. A mesh bag will keep your mushrooms fresh and let those thousands of spores fall back to the ground. The spores are microscopic. The cap of each morel contains 250,000 to 500,000 spores. These spores must become airborne and then find adequate nutrients, soil and moisture. The odds of successful reproduction are slim, but people can help the process by using mesh bags for their “catches.”

So use mesh and tell other people why it’s important.

Recycled orange and onion bags are quite usable and adequate, but can abrade the edges of your mushrooms. Some people use well-vented baskets. What I’ve found works best for me is a simple lingerie bag found for less than a dollar in the laundry department of many stores. I usually pack three or four along, they fold up flat when not in use and can easy be stuffed in a pocket. It doesn’t matter which type of collection vessel you use, as long as the spore gets spread.

Let’s fast forward to the woods – you’ve found yourself smack dab in big patch of morels – now what? First of all, never pull the morel out of the ground. That method breaks the mycelium trial and can destroy future harvests. Pinch off at ground level, or use a sharp knife to slice through stem. Give the morel a little shake and toss it the bag. When arriving home with your bounty, slice in half, rinse under cool running water, and place wrapped in damp dishtowels or paper towels in refrigerator. Forget the folk method of leaving them soak in salt water – that will only net you a slimy, salty, mess. If you are particularly concerned about the little bugs that might be living in the nooks and crannies, a short 15 minute soak in lightly salted water helps to remove them. Rinse well then store as suggested above.

Morels can be used sautéed, deep fried, grilled, most anyway that you can imagine! A quick internet search will offer up hundreds of delectable morel recipes.

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Photo by Gretchen Steele

Because the season is so short lived, so fleeting, and so steeped in tradition and history, photos of your mushroom madness are a must.  There’s nothing more uplifting, inspiring and cheering during a cold winter evening than looking back at memories from that warm spring day when you “found the biggest mushroom ever!”

I suggest focusing on three specific types of morel photos;

Capture the day; these include images of my foray partners, people actively hunting, and scenes from the general area.

Close up/Macros – Each morel in incredibly unique in its shape, coloring, and setting. Get down and dirty, up close and personal and capture the unique beauty that each morel displays.

Trophy Photos – Yes, trophy photos; coolers overflowing on the tailgate, mounds of full sacks piled on a picnic table and of course – a true trophy image with a particularly large single specimen.  Morel stories can be a bit like fish stories and that trophy image that includes an item that can be used to scale the morel subject will prove that indeed, “That big yella was bigger than a quart jar!”

Now, that you have a guide for the when, where and how; take to the forest, take to the fields and start snapping those “morel moments” of your own!

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Here’s Gretchen Steele … Getting down and dirty for a great shot. Photo by Barbara Baird

Visit Gretchen Steele’s very fine blog, Walkin’ with the Wild Woman!

This Retro WON about morels first appeared April 5, 2012.

The Conversation

2 Comments
  • Alyssa Haukom says: April 9, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Great article and photos! My husband and I found a few small grey morels in our woods last week…the earliest ever! We like to dip them in an egg wash, coat in corn flake crumb/flour mixture seasoned with salt & pepper & saute them in butter. Delish!!

  • Jane says: April 5, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Great article! Nobody loves mushrooms as much as Gretchen Steele and nobody takes better fungi photos!

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