Mushrooms are fascinating and amazing fungi. Their color, shape, and size rival spring wildflowers in their variety and beauty. If you know where to look.

But no flower in Missouri inspires the kind of single-minded devotion and dedication as one type of mushroom, that of the genus Morchella. Specifically, the esculenta and elata species. You probably know them as morels.

Gourmands and outdoor enthusiasts alike know how special and hard to find morels can be. They aren’t necessarily the best tasting of all mushrooms, though they are incredibly tasty, says Maxine Stone, author of Missouri’s Wild Mushrooms. Her guide to some of the most commonly hunted fungi details the how, where, and when of finding dozens of wild mushrooms.

And while many are tasty, none inspire the passion that the morel does. Why? It’s the thrill of the hunt.

Morels burst forth, or “fruit”, in and around April. They need just the right conditions, says Stone — just enough rain, a ground temperature of at least 55 degrees, and a cozy spot at the base of one of a couple types of trees. Sometimes they favor oaks, hickories, or tulip poplars. But the most common is a dying elm.

Morel mushroom

And because morels only come up in and around April, some trees don’t have leaves yet. This means successful mushroom hunters must be tree experts as well. While you’d expect mushroom hunters to keep their eyes on the ground, often they start their hunts looking up, searching for the tree that might have some morels nestled beside its trunk.

“Dying elms are your best bet,” Stone said.

How to know if it’s dying? “The shape of the elm changes,” she said. Living elms have branches that angle up and out, like a vase. When they start dying, they curl up and in.

On the Hunt
The Missouri Mycological Society hosts hunts all over the region, including in Illinois. Hunters attempt to stay close to the trail and walk parallel to it, so as not to get lost, but deep enough into the woods to get the mushrooms that people sticking to the trails have missed.

Missouri Mycological Society member Sharon Smithey with morels found with Steve Booker.

Wandering off trail, even when the trail is in sight, is a wildly different experience then hiking at 2-mile-per-hour clip on the path. Be sure to wear sturdy boots or shoes, long pants, and long sleeves to avoid poison ivy and pokes and scratches from branches and brambles. Society members swear by soaking their clothes in permethrin to avoid ticks.

Most hunters, even casual ones, will start to see many, many mushrooms as soon as they start looking. Most are not edible, either because they could be poisonous or they just don’t taste good. Still, society members almost always take a small sample back to the group, so the mushroom can be identified and added to its database, which includes thousands of varieties found across the state.

For most of the mushroom hunters, though, finding edibles is the chief goal. One of the highlights of the society’s October foray at Eldon Hazlet State Recreation Area in Illinois was finding “chicken of the woods”. One hunter literally jumped for joy when she spotted them on a log. She said they taste like chicken. Another hunter found a large number of chanterelles, one of the favorite edible mushrooms in the world.

Stone loves chanterelles, along with chicken of the woods, black trumpets, and lobster mushrooms, and of course, morels. Part of the appeal of chanterelles is that she finds them every year. “I don’t always find morels.”

But that’s one of the reasons they’re so sought-after, she said. If they were everywhere, they wouldn’t incite the passion they do.

Of course, one of the dangers of mushroom hunting is the risk of eating a poisonous one. Stone’s book lists “look-a-likes” that sometimes confuse mushroom enthusiasts. Her main advice to morel hunters is to watch out for false morels. The best way to tell the difference between a false morel and true morel is to cut it in half — a true morel is hollow.

The Missouri Mycological Society has lots of information on its web page as well, and an expert hotline for those who aren’t sure they should eat what they’ve collected.

Cooking Tips

Morels in cream sauce

Morel lovers recommend mixing cooked morels into scrambled eggs or mashed potatoes or serving creamed morels over toast or potatoes. Foods like tomato sauce, garlic, and onion can overpower the mild morel flavor, according to Missouri Mycological Society member Willie May. The caps are the best part, but cooks often dry and powder the stems to add flavor to chicken and seafood dishes, he said.

Author: Kathy Schrenk is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.