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The Elusive Morel

Country MoonHere in the Midwest it is mushroom season again, and many of us spend any free minutes we have hunting those elusive morels. Those earthy, nutty, and steak-like-flavored morsels of fungus that, just when you think you have figured out how and when they like to grow, change it up on you. It’s either too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, or too something. Although they are found in all 50 states, we Midwesterners claim the hotspot for them.

Morels are persnickety little creatures that like conditions just right, which brings up the question: “Can they be grown in controlled conditions?” The answer is “Yes,” although it can be a complicated process. The instructions for growing them are pretty simple, but the failure rate is high. Before even attempting to cultivate them, there are a few general things that are good to know whether you are growing or hunting them.

Temperature is a big factor. They like temps around 60 degrees F or warmer during the day and around 40 F at night, keeping the soil temperature between 45 F and 50 F. After a good warm rain is one of the best times to seek them out.

Knowing the lay of the land will also give you an advantage. They seem to prefer loamy soil, like creek bottoms, that are well drained and moist but not wet. A good mix of clay and sand with some decaying matter is ideal. A little calcium or lime is an added bonus. Back to the persnickety part: Even though these conditions are ideal, they can also be found in gravel.

Disturbed ground is also a good place to find them, places like burn sites, logging areas, and on ground that has been ravaged by wildfires. The site Global Incident Map tracks current and past eroded areas that have been torn up by large equipment, logging machinery, and flooded areas. It may be worth the effort to check this out and get a jump over those that are headed out “cold turkey.”

Knowing the different species of trees will also give you a huge advantage. Morels can be tree huggers, literally. They like to hang around elm, ash, poplar, and apple trees. Whether these trees are living, dead, or dying, they are always a good bet to find morels. But then again, morels are finicky, so they have also been found under pine trees. Generally they show up wherever they show up. Because of all these variables, there are basically two kinds of morel hunters; one type scans the ground for morels, and the other type scans the forest for certain types of trees. Either way can be a gamble.

Since growers know the kinds of conditions these mushrooms prefer, it would seem that growing morels would not be so hard. But there are two basic reasons that they are hard to cultivate. The first one has to do with mycorrhizae relationships. Mycorrhyzae are mutual relationships between fungi and plant roots. Once, scientists thought that morels were only saprotrophic, meaning that they only fed on dying or dead organic matter. Now they are believed to be mycorrhizal, where they get their nutrients from the roots of trees. This relationship benefits both the fungus and the tree, as the fungus receives carbs such as glucose that the plant produces and the plant gets to absorb more water and nutrients from the soil due to additional surface area. This fungus-plant relationship cannot easily be recreated.

Something called sclerotia further complicates the growing process. Part of a morel’s life cycle is that they go through a sclerotium, which is a dense collection of hardened calcium nutrients that they store when environmental conditions are not ideal. This allows the morels to survive in a resting state when weather conditions are too cold or dry — basically in winter. When winter ends, these sclerotia either produce a mushroom or begin to grow more mycelium. The temperature and water levels have to be just right for the morel to “decide” to be a mushroom. Since our winters have been warmer than usual, morels are confused as to when spring is really here.

These are two big obstacles to growing morels, however, it has been accomplished. Soil composition is the big factor. It should be sandy without a lot of clay, rock, or gravel. Some peat moss or gypsum is helpful, as are wood chips from elm or ash because they will help promote a mycorrhizal partnership. If you can put your bed at the base of an elm, ash, or apple tree, that would be an added benefit.

Andyou could recreate a burn site. Do this by making a small burn pile near the morel bed and burning organic material. This will simulate a forest fire. Then, incorporate some ashes from the burn pile into the soil in and around your morel bed. Be patient, because it may take a few years to see results; Midwestern morels occasionally do not respond to this stimulus.

On the other hand, Midwesterners have an advantage because a climate where there is a distinct change from winter to spring is more conducive to morel growth. Even the past couple years where we have had mild winters, there is still a profound change when the seasons change. This is Mother Nature’s contribution to raising morels. Keep the bed moist, but not wet.

Even with all these tips for hunting and growing morels, they are still found mostly by chance. When I was a kid they were so prevalent that each year we would drive the backroads and hunt them from the car! But an increase use of sprays have had an effect on their availability, as has the use of plastic bags to hunt them. Using plastic shopping bags from stores doesn’t allow the spores to drop through and fall to the ground to ensure the following year’s growth. For this reason, using mesh bags is a better bet.

With all this said, it still feels like they are laughing at us like little Leprechauns, popping up in the same spot we had just looked. As seasoned morel hunters will tell you, you can follow all these suggestions and you will find them where you find them — where you least expect them. But, in a worst case scenario where you get skunked, you will still have had a day in the fresh air and sunshine, and it can’t get any better than that.

Morel mushrooms on forest floor
Photo by Adobe Stock/cehermosilla