If paradise has a season, it must be perpetual April. Heaven knows, Missouri’s outdoors are never more paradisaical than when there are turkeys strutting in the woods, crappie biting in the lakes and fungus underfoot.
That’s right, April is the month when you can pursue Missouri’s grand slam–turkey, crappie and morels. Each is without equal. No game matches the challenge presented by a wily tom turkey; no fish surpasses the delicate flavor of a crappie filet. And the morel? Well, it combines the best of the first two.
When to Find Mushrooms
Mushrooming isn’t limited to April and May however. Mushrooms can be found from February to June. It’s not an especially helpful answer, I admit, but neither is, “When the proper combination of temperature, moisture and nutrients occurs.”
Even if you knew precisely what temperature and soil moisture content causes morels to sprout, the information would be next to useless. These factors change from day to day and from hour to hour in the springtime, not to mention variations from every ridge, hillside, valley and pasture in the state.
The morel patch you found dry as a bone yesterday could get a freak thundershower Sunday and be crawling with morels by Wednesday afternoon. Persistence is the hallmark of a successful mushroomer. The more days you spend in the field, the better the chances you’ll be there when the ‘shrooms are.
Still, there are some factors worth considering in deciding when to hunt for morels. The day immediately following a warm rain is good, all other things being equal. A nice thunderstorm at your house is your cue to check the south 40. Following a statewide deluge, you can extend the scope of your quest to distant sites.
Temperature and Other Signs
The effect of temperature on morel-hunting prospects is even more difficult to pin down. Early morels begin sprouting when the average daily temperature (high + low, divided by two) creeps above about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the average daily temperature climbs above 50 degrees, you can reasonably begin looking for black and half-free morels. False morels appear about this same time. Not until the average daily temperature reaches the mid-50s do the most sought-after species, the common and late morels, make their appearances.
Taking daily temperature readings and punching a calculator isn’t appealing to most mushroomers. Furthermore, it’s no more accurate and considerably less satisfying than relying on intuition. After several years of hunting (and finding) morels, you develop a kind of sixth sense about when and where to find them.
Until then, it’s tempting to follow simple rules for calculating the onset of morel season, even though the accuracy of such methods is inversely proportional to their simplicity.
“When May apples bloom,” is an oft-heard rule of thumb. “When oak leaves are in the mouse-ear stage,” advises one bit of folk wisdom, while another says, “When oak leaves are as big as a squirrel’s ear.” I’ve always wondered if that means a fox squirrel or a gray squirrel, adult or juvenile.
I’m inclined to believe there’s some sense to the notion morels can be found when hard, brown galls of cedar-apple rust hang their orange, gelatinous spore bodies on juniper trees. This always coincides with a good rain. A more concrete rule is that early morels show up three weeks or so after hepatica blooms.
The blooming of serviceberry and Dutchman’s breeches may be harbingers of black and false morels.
My personal favorite is the contention that morels can be found when big crappie begin to bite. I can’t honestly say my mushrooming success has been any better when “slab” crappie were moving inshore to spawn, but the prospect of combining two such wonderful spring pastimes helps me break free of my office routine. I certainly won’t catch any crappie or find morels sitting behind a desk.
One simple way to calculate the probable peak of morel season is to consult the Department’s Natural Events Calendar for the average date of last frost for your area, and add about two weeks it.
Keep in mind that differences in the micro-climates of different terrains may extend your morel-hunting run for several weeks at both ends of the season. Mushrooms often emerge earlier on south-facing slopes, due to the extra solar energy these areas receive. Likewise, the soil warms sooner in areas where fire has burned away leaf litter and brush, allowing the sun’s full power to warm the earth.
When you find the morel crop fading in your traditional hotspots, look for places where spring comes late. North-facing slopes, the sides of steep valleys or areas insulated from the sun by undergrowth or a thick carpet of leaves stay cool later in the year. Morels may mature there several weeks after the main crop.
Where to Find Them
There’s good news and bad news about where to find morels. The good news is you can choose from hundreds of thousands of acres of top-notch public morel-hunting land in Missouri. The bad news? Same thing. You’ve got to narrow the field down to the “right” couple of hundred acres on conservation areas, national forest land and the strips surrounding Missouri’s dozen or so big public lakes.
Again, there is an abundance of folk wisdom to help you. The morel-nurturing properties of elm trees are highly touted, as are proximity to apple, ash, basswood and cherry trees.
However, I haven’t noticed that I find many more mushrooms in open stands of old trees than in relatively young forests. And I have a near-religious faith in the likelihood of finding morels around trees that have been dead just long enough for their bark to being sloughing off. My theory is the roots of these trees also are beginning to decay, providing ready nourishment for fungi, including my beloved morels.
I’ve never checked it out, but many morel fanciers claim abandoned apple orchards are morel hotbeds. I would be cautious about eating morels if pesticides were used in the area, however.
Hunting morels in recently logged forests is another variation on the theme of finding morels around moribund trees. Roots left in the soil may support a strong bloom of morels for several years. Areas ravaged by forest fires also can produce prodigious morel crops. it is unclear whether this is due to the abundance of dead trees, increased penetration of sunlight, or both, but one burned forest tract in Austria reportedly produced 44,000 pounds of morels in a single season.
Aside from these general tips, morel hunting is a matter of wandering about more or less aimlessly, while scanning the forest floor for a glimpse of the spongelike surface of your quarry. When you spy one, don’t rush right over and pick it; you may trample a half-dozen others. Morels rarely grow singly. Where you find one, you’ll usually find at least one or two more – sometimes a lot more.
When I find a morel, I usually mark the spot by dropping my hat. Then I comb the entire area, walking back and forth over a patch at least 50 feet square. A walking staff is handy for bending down May apples or other vegetation so you can look underneath.
In a pinch you can use a jacket or shirt to carry morels. Bread sacks or garbage bags fit neatly into pockets until needed, but morels don’t keep well in unventilated containers. A cloth or mesh bag is better, and a basket is better still because it protects the mushrooms from crushing.
Any amount of morels sufficient to feed at least yourself is commonly known as a “mess.” When your efforts finally produce this magical quantity, you are a full-fledged morel hunter, deserving the primary right and privilege pertaining thereto–namely, eating the mess.
Slice each mushroom in half from top to bottom and soak at least an hour or so in saltwater. This will remove soil particles and any tiny bugs that may have taken up residence. It also will give you time to combine equal parts of beaten egg and milk in a bowl, crush up soda crackers in another bowl, and melt butter in a pan.
Dry the mushroom halves, dip them in the egg-milk mixture, roll them in the cracker crumbs, and saute over medium heat until they are golden brown on both sides.
If you only have a few, you might want to extend them by serving the sauteed mushrooms in scrambled eggs. Morels are excellent fixed by themselves in a variety of other ways, or incorporated into other dishes where their delicate flavor can be enjoyed.
Don’t overdo it, though. Eating too much can cause stomach upset, and morels have been known to cause mild poisoning symptoms when consumed with alcohol. I limit myself to a pint of morels a day (measured before cooking).
If you stumble on a mother lode of morels, you can preserve some by drying or partially cooking and then freezing them. A meal of morels enjoyed in the dead of winter is a welcome reminder that spring is coming.