Hunting for Morel Mushrooms

Mar 30, 2012  | Ep 202

Every spring, Iowans from of all walks of life are drawn to the state’s woodlands to participate in what might be nature’s biggest treasure hunt.  The reward?  A tasty little fungi known as the morel mushroom.

As warmer weather approaches, morel mushroom lovers all over Iowa tie on their hiking boots and head for wooded terrain in search of their favorite fungi.

Hunting morel mushrooms is an Iowa pastime full of rituals. It seems everyone you talk to knows “the spot” or has “all the tricks” to find the mother load of morels.  Every hunter has his or her own system or “style” of morel hunting.  

What I usually do is look for the trees that have bark peeling off of them, like that one over there.

Many start by looking for dead or dying elm trees.

By this tree all the way from over to here, this is where we found them last time.

Some are very particular about the “spots” they hunt for morels, known by its scientific name as Morchella, and hunters can be hush-hush about those annual locations.  But there are exceptions…

A lot of people are real secretive about their spots, but I’m not. I bring people out here all the time.

From Iowa’s temperamental spring weather conditions to the fungi itself, there are many factors that weigh-in on hunting morel mushrooms.  Our search for tips led to Iowa State University and Dr. Mark Gleason.

Kellie:  Some people say that they find morels around dead or dying trees.  Is that important?  Or is that just kind of a myth?

Dr. Mark Gleason:  No, it’s really true.  Particularly dying elms.  A lot of dedicated morel hunters really look for decaying elm trees.  It seems like the morels will really prosper in those areas of those decaying elm woods.  They’ll also occur elsewhere but those are kind of a focus point for morel hunters sometimes is the dead elm.  

One thing all morel aficionados have in common is the belief that hunting season is far too short and the next year can’t come soon enough.  

Others believe that the limited time the season runs is what makes the hunt for morel mushrooms such a treasure.

First, they are good to eat. Really, really good. They might not be that good if a person had a chance to eat them 52 weeks out the year, but most of the time they are pretty limited.  And it’s just fun to find them.  They’re out here to be picked if you can find them.

Kellie:  So if I am out in the woods how can I tell a real morel from a false morel?

Dr. Mark Gleason:  This takes a little study.  People who haven't hunted mushrooms before really need to do a little homework because morels have a distinctive physical characteristics that make them a little bit different than other mushrooms.  The reason you want to know them apart because some other mushrooms can give you digestive problems or neurological problems or even kill you.  So you want to make sure that... the morels by the way are all good to eat, but once you get outside that genus Morchella it is anybody's guess as to what the effects will be.  

So, I just wanted to point out a couple of things.  Here we have a yellow morel and you can see the basic shape of the cap.  It is pretty distinctive for a morel, and it has almost a sponge-like structure and there is a stalk at the bottom. Mushrooms typically have a cap and a stalk and in the case of morels the stalk if you were to cut it in half it is completely hollow.  Other mushrooms that are false morels will have fuzz in there.  It is like a fungal fuzz but in the case of a morel it is totally hollow.  So if the stalk isn't hollow don't swallow.

Albert Einstein once said that by looking into nature, you’ll have a better understanding of everything.  That is the hope here at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.