Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Morel Envy; A Case Study

Ever since I became interested in edible fungi, the same thing happens every Spring. In early April, I start thinking about morels. I look for them weeks before I know they’ll be out. A quiet voice nags me- “This year they might come out freakishly early and you won’t want to miss them.”

They never come out freakishly early.

Also, every year I tell myself that I don’t actually care that much about morels. I tell myself there are other mushrooms I prefer- like hen of the woods, which is delicious and can be harvested readily in great quantities. Sure morels taste good, especially when sautéed in butter, but then again what doesn’t taste good sautéed in butter? I tell myself that I am better than the morel snobs out there who act as if “their” patches were deeded to them by the gods as part of their sacred birthright. I am not like them. I am generous. I have taken close friends to morel patches to let them experience the magic. For me, finding mushroom treasures feels somewhat hollow if I’m alone. I like seeing the joy radiate from a friend’s face when they stumble upon their first brain-shaped little wonder.

Of course my generosity has its limits. One must display an appropriate amount of deference if they have any hope of learning my secrets. One must demonstrate a genuine desire to learn. One must not complain about walking off-trail, over hills, and through brambles. One must show an interest in learning about trees, plants, soils, and other types of fungi besides morels. Morels are part of the forest ecosystem and one part of the system corresponds with the others. For example, I have learned that it is futile to look for morels if the May Apples are too small and the Dryad’s Saddle isn’t fruiting. Most importantly, one must convey that they understand that the forest isn’t a damn grocery store.

Just because I am open to sharing the gift of morels with others does not mean that I am above the base human emotions. I get annoyed when people I barely know ask me for hints on locations. I get more than annoyed when those people have the almighty gall ask me outright to show them my patches. After all, it’s taken me countless hours of slogging around wet forests, crawling on my hands and knees through brambles, literally circling the bases of thousands of trees to find the elusive fungi. I’ve logged innumerable hours learning about the trees that morels often associate with. I’ve learned to identify them by bark, leaves, flowers, and fruit. I’ve learned the Latin names. In short, I’ve put in the work and they haven’t.

This past weekend, I experienced another base human emotion. Morel envy. On Saturday a few of us went to a known morel spot and had a look around. We found three sad looking morels. They were brittle and covered with mold. On Saturday evening, I told myself that I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to spend my entire weekend traipsing around the woods looking for mushrooms that I pretend to not even care about. My girlfriend and I would spend our Sunday being lazy and doing miscellaneous things that we had been meaning to do for a while. Perhaps we would look the next weekend.

Then it happened. On Sunday morning, my friend Sara texted me a photo. She was holding a sack over-brimming with giant morels. Each mushroom must have been at least five inches long. There was no mold. They didn’t look brittle. They were perfect, and she had about 25 of them! She and her boyfriend chanced upon them in a forest they were visiting for the very first time. Fortune had really smiled on those lucky dogs.

My heart sank. I showed the picture to my girlfriend Katya.

Joy or smugness? You decide.

“What can we do about this?”, she asked.

“There’s only one thing we can do. We need to scrap everything and get out there”, I responded.

Our lazy Sunday got active real quick. Within five minutes we had changed out of our PJs and into our forest attire. I filled our water bottles and hastily stuffed some bread and fruit in a bag. We threw our supplies into the car and were driving. But to where?

I have lived in DC for over three years now, and know of just one reliable morel spot in the region. However, I had already checked that spot the day prior with little success. I wracked my brain to think of a location.

“Hmmm, let me think. Drive north for now. That’s our best option” I said.

Picking new morel hunting grounds on the fly is no easy task. In fact, anyone undertaking such an endeavor should make it easy on themselves and simply assume they will not have any success. I considered latitude. I considered geography. I considered elevation. Most importantly, I considered tree types.

I learned to forage in upstate New York. In New York, morels like dying white ash trees. However, I couldn’t think of many good stands of ash in the area.

The story of morels is somewhat sad. They are continuous orphans of a sort. Over the past several decades, the trees that morels like to associate with have been ravaged by this fungus or that insect. At some point in history, morels liked to associate with elm trees. However, Dutch Elm Disease virtually wiped out all of the elms. So they learned to like white ash. Now the emerald ash borer is devastating white ash trees. For the time being, however, the dying ashes still yield morels. In the Mid-Atlantic, morels also like tulip poplars, and there’s plenty of those in Piedmont forests in the region.

I remembered some small-ish ash and poplar forests out in rural Maryland that could offer some hope. We hurried there. We parked the car and I raced into the forest, Katya trailing behind me. I began dashing around the forest like a madman, scouring the base of every tree. It looked like perfect habitat. The only problem was we weren’t finding any.

After about an hour, we clambered out of a dense thicket and headed back towards the car. Katya spotted a sad, slug-eaten morel that I had just walked over without noticing. It may have been sad, but it was the first morel she had ever spotted on her own.

“I don’t even think this counts. It’s all rotted.”, she said.

“You can still take credit for it”, I assured her.

However, we both knew that she wouldn’t be satisfied until she found a healthier specimen.

“This area looks and feels perfect. There should be tons here.”, I said.

However, morels appear when and where they damn well please.

We got to the car and took off down the road. As we were driving, I remembered another nearby forest that I had visited the past Fall. I had made a mental note that there were some ashes there.

We parked hurriedly and again we were off. About three minutes in, we found some Dryad’s Saddle that was just past its prime. Dryad’s Saddle is an edible poplypore fungus that fruits around the same time as morels. It is also far more common and easier to find than morels, so it has been humorously labeled “the poor man’s morel”. I’m not above poor man’s morels. They are excellent sautéed or pickled. Anyways, it was a good sign. The time of year was right.

In my opinion, there was too much oak around. Morels don’t want anything to do with oak. “Let’s get away from this oak. We must find ash or poplar. Come on.”, I said.

We crested a hill and walked for about a half mile. I paused and noticed a river below us. Next to the river was a vast flood plain dominated by massive tulip poplars interspersed with dying ash. It was a glorious sight for two people in a morel frenzy.

We walked down to the plain. A family was fishing a few hundred yards downstream. Again, like a lunatic, I started racing around the bottom of promising looking trees. I checked four or five giant poplars to no avail. Then I noticed some more Dryad’s Saddle out of the corner of my eye. I went over to see if it was fresh, but saw right away that it was not. “We can’t even find poor man’s morels today”, I joked.

I took one step and stopped dead in my tracks. A giant gray morel, hardly visible, was hiding in the underbrush.

“Sweet Jesus I found one!”, I yelled to Katya.

She raced over and marveled at it. It was flawless. Firm, free of mold, and very large- but not so large that it was starting to deteriorate.

“How did you even see that?”, she asked?

“After a while, you just get locked in. You get those morel eyes”, I responded.

I glanced towards the family fishing downstream to make sure they weren’t paying attention to us. Couldn’t have looky-loos capitalizing on our hard work (Truthfully, most people probably wouldn’t have noticed what we were doing, and even if they did, they wouldn’t actually go out and harvest their own). Safe from looky-loos, I bent down and photographed the mushroom before harvesting it.

Here's the little beauty as she sat. 

With a new-found energy we began searching every promising tree. I found another magnificent morel not even a minute later. It was a giant blonde. We moved methodically through the forest, occasionally getting on our hands and knees to make sure we weren’t missing any in the dense grasses. Katya and I walked in parallel, she closer to the riverbank, me more inland. The next ten minutes were every morel hunter’s dream (see map below for the exact location we struck gold).

Here's where we found em'.

I found one every minute or so, and would tell Katya “Go and check that tree over there, it looks promising.” While she was searching that tree, I would find another one. This happened so many times that we began to joke that I was intentionally sabotaging her.

“There’s one. And another! And another!! Oh boy!!!” I exclaimed.

One giant tulip poplar had six perfect specimens around its base. I have found this to be rare with tulip poplars. Multi-morel fruitings are relatively common under ash trees. However, I have found that morels tend to pop up individually under tulip poplars- maybe as a pair if you’re lucky.

Katya was amazed. She was finally getting a proper morel experience and it was a pleasure to see her excitement. She found another, however, it was also past its prime. We continued on, having scoured several acres in a short amount of time. I was checking out some ash trees when I heard Katya.

“I found a real one! My first real one!”, she yelled joyously.

Indeed, she had. It was a medium-sized gray morel, and very difficult to spot for even the most trained eye. I gave her a congratulatory hug and we did a little dance.

First proper morel victory dance by Katya.

After that, things quieted down some. We found a few more, but the flood gates had closed. All told, we found about 15 prime mushrooms.

That evening we cooked our bounty in a well-buttered cast iron pan. They were delicious, and gone within two minutes. Katya and I looked at each other smiling, sharing a deep satisfaction that probably only other morel nuts can understand.

Look at those beauts sizzling away.

I have decided to stop pretending that I don’t care about morels. I’m bonkers for them, for so many reasons. They are one of the first mushrooms up in the Spring, which is nice for mushroom nerds like myself who have just suffered through months of frigid, fungi-less conditions. They only grace us with their presence for a few short weeks if we are lucky. They are really, really difficult to find, which makes finding them very rewarding. They have stymied numerous human attempts to cultivate them. Nothing else tastes exactly like morels, and they taste great sautéed in butter.

But it goes deeper yet. Over the past several years, I have been on a quest to learn as much as I can about Nature’s wonders- wonders that are still there even if most people don’t know to look for them. I am on a quest to learn about Nature’s cycles and to find my place within those cycles. 

I have found a rogue morel or two by happenstance. But I have never accidentally found myself in a bona fide morel patch. If I am standing in a morel patch, all of the conditions are just right- the season, the weather, the elevation, the trees, and the soils. While I have no control over those natural conditions, I do have the capacity to learn about them and from them. If I’m standing in a morel patch, it’s because I have put in the time, the miles, my sweat, and my blood. I have employed my full suite of naturalist skills just to give myself a fighting chance. When I am standing in a morel patch, I am overcome with the sensation that I am precisely where and when I should be. And I tell you this- I don’t spend my free time painstakingly scouring countless acres of forest because I like the taste of things sautéed in butter. I do it because if I don’t, how the hell am I supposed to match or one-up that smug Sara?*

*Note: In reality, Sara and her boyfriend are lovely people and very dear friends. However, sometimes even lovely people have to suffer for the sake of the narrative. Like the market, its in control. 


  1. Is there a "morels are so over" crowd seeking an even more rare and delicious fungi?

    1. My guess is that would be the Matsutake crowd. Convinced that red hots and gym socks are pleasant odor/taste notes.