A few days ago during a thundering rainstorm I collected enough fresh morels for a meal in less than a minute and didn’t get a sprinkle of rain on me. I am revealing my fortunate morel habitat willingly and I dare anyone to exploit it.
Morels are the wonderful culinary delicacies that many mushroom hunters spend hours foraging most springs in wooded areas throughout much of North America, Europe and Asia. Usually morel hunters are secretive about where they find these gastronomic treasures because the reproduction of morel mushrooms is only somewhat predictable and hunters want to keep their usual haunts unknown.
Morels are reputed to grow best in enclaves of fallen and decaying elm trees, and to lesser extent, other hardwoods. The morels I harvested were growing under the eaves of our house, within a half dozen feet of our front door!
Yes, I said that accurately. These treasured edibles grew next to our home and were prominent 3-5 inch ivory-colored delicious fungi that I fried in an egg batter and savored for supper.
How could such good fortune occur? Was it that I shook previous collections of morels in the mesh bags I used during previous springs on my doorstep to hopefully spread their spores?
Was it that a couple recent days were warm (over 80 degrees F) and rainy, which are climactic conditions that favor the emergence of morels? It was the type of luck I seldom experience, for there have been many times when I have diligently searched woods nearby to my favorite fly fishing ponds without finding any mushrooms.
I’ve also had times when I collected several pounds of morels during a pleasant hour of trekking through the woods. I might add that breaded mushrooms fried in the same pan after the fish are done are really delicious.
Science doesn’t have full explanations for the variability of morel production. Morchella researchers (those who study morels and other mushrooms in the same genus) offer a few hints to morel proliferation, but no absolute growing information.
Do they want to keep such important information to themselves? No, the scientific community almost always makes its findings available to the general public.
Finding morels is like farming and a lot of things in life—one has to acquire the knack. The mystery that accompanies finding them is part of the fun.
Information about morels is available on many websites. Morels tend to proliferate in five-year cycles of acquiring nutrients after spores fall, cross pollinate and multiply.
Last year the largest morel I have ever seen, a nine-inch beauty, grew under the finch feeder next to our house. Generally though, experts say morels like to colonize burn sites where fallen remnants of dead windblown or wildfire trees release their nutrients into the soil.
Biological evidence indicates that the developing morchella spores send minute fibers smaller than hairs to probe through moist soil they can readily penetrate to explore food sources after frozen ground thaws. The tiny probes need to find an underground food source, like decaying trees or roots.
Above ground temperatures need to be 70 degrees F or higher and overnight temperatures need to remain above 40 degrees F for several successive nights. Sustained warm growing conditions are essential, from what I have figured out through my informal observations and as various researchers have found in controlled studies.
Adequate precipitation is critical, for morels don’t emerge unless moist soil conditions accompany adequate temperatures and nutrition that tell the parent organism the conditions are favorable to try to reproduce.
Some years yield few morels, especially if the weather is dry or cool.
False morels are rarely found. I’m not an authority on this, but many people worry about correctly identifying edible morels.
There are a few “look-alikes” that can make people ill and some are deadly. I recommend to potential consumers who are uncertain to seek information online, purchase a guide book with colored pictures to identify mushrooms or consult an expert who knows what to look for.
Orioles, gold finches and bluebirds arrived the day after I discovered the flourishing morels. They deliberately bumped into our floor-to-ceiling kitchen windows to alert my wife and me that they returned from their annual winter migration and were hungry.
Marilyn quickly filled the finch feeder with Niger thistle seed and loaded the oriole/bluebird bowl with grape jelly.
It puzzles me how these birds learned to announce their arrival by bumping into our kitchen windows. Since most wild birds survive only for a year or less, does this mean the orioles, goldfinches and the year-round resident cardinals that also poke our windows have genetically encoded their acquired skills to beg for food?
The ecosystems around us have developed survival mechanisms, whether mushrooms, birds, or the plants and livestock agriculturalists produce. Our calling as farmers is to work in harmony with these natural ecosystems to produce food, fibers and fuel.
Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist who lives on the farm he shares with his wife. Share your thoughts with Dr. Rosmann at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.