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The Garden Scoop

Tread lightly as the hunt begins for morel mushrooms

The elusive moral mushroom appears each spring in Illinois woodlands providing a culinary delight to successful mushroom hunters. Photo Credit: Chris Evans, Illinois Extension

Every spring, a group of enthusiastic woodland hunters frequent forests across Illinois in search of a mysterious and elusive fungi – the morel.

Many are armed with years of practical knowledge and experience to inform the success of their hunt. Many, like me, simply get lucky by stumbling upon this sacred specimen in their woodland wanders. 

One thing all these determined foragers share is the love and thrill that finding native morel mushrooms brings. It is truly magical to spot a single morel (Morchella spp.) amongst the forest duff. Often, seemingly out of thin air, many more morels suddenly come into vision to constitute an entire patch of fungal fruiting bodies, likely all part of the same organism, leaving the mushroom hunter surrounded by a tiny stand of delectable fungi.

Where do you find morels? It depends on who you ask

"The person who has the most to say about morels is often the one filled with most hot air" - A veteran morel hunter from Southern Illinois

The mystic surrounding how, when and where to find morel mushrooms has long haunted many a forest forager. The well-experienced mushroom hunter certainly has many tried and true methods and favorite hunting grounds, sometimes handed down for generations. It is an interesting inquiry to listen to some the secrets dispelled from a seasoned veteran, as the methods and stories about finding the best hunting conditions and locations are perhaps more abundant than trees in the forest.  

If there is one thing for certain, a veteran morel hunter will never disclose the true location of their hunting grounds. And it is often difficult to ascertain whether shared information is truly something to note or simply a ploy to lead the inexperienced listener astray and protect the harvest. 

Why do people forage for morels?

The biggest draw for most morel hunters is the culinary delight these elusive fungi provide.  They are truly delicious, adding a unique taste of nature to any dish or sufficing nicely on their own as a tasty side dish. 

Morels are incredibly difficult to produce in cultivation due to our current lack of scientific understanding that doesn’t take backcountry traditions and knowledge into consideration. A variety of factors in nature come into play to produce morel fruiting bodies and there likely are so many to account for that research has difficulty isolating the specifics.

Find Morels in Illinois

Illinois is known to have three species of morel:

  • The yellow morel (M. esculenta)
  • The black morel (M. elata)
  • The half-free morel (M. semilibera). 

As spring morels appear each year, it is a great time to be in the woods due to milder weather and an abundance of spring wildflowers.

While many factors are unknown, we do know morels start to pop up as early as March in southern Illinois and typically follows in a matter of weeks across the state, all based on spring weather.

Tread lightly in the woods: The impacts of foraging morels

Whatever the motivation for morel hunting, it is important to stay vigilant as you navigate the spring forest understory. While research has shown that recreational morel harvesting is sustainable in most settings, there are other impacts to woodlands when humans wander about studying the forest floor.

“While the actual act of picking a morel may have little impact on woodlands, it’s just the human disturbance that we worry about,” says Nate Beccue, Natural Areas Manage at Allerton Park in east-central Illinois near Monticello. 

Due to its long history of protection, Allerton Park remains one of the most intact and pristine forested ecosystems in the area. Every spring the park hosts an amazing and unparalleled display of wildflowers. Many are spring ephemerals, meaning they complete their entire lifecycle prior to leaf out of the tree canopy. So, the tiny window of their above-ground existence each spring is an incredibly sensitive time. 

“Allerton’s rule is ‘stay on trails,’ which applies to any activity in the park,” says Beccue. “It’s meant to protect the one-of-a-kind resource we have here and our trail system provides great access and viewing of all that Allerton has to offer.”

Foraging Responsibly

If you plan to morel hunt this spring, be sure to properly identify any fungi you collect before consumption. Many local natural areas do not allow collection, so check ahead of time and be sure to watch your step when you are out in the woods.  Sensitive vegetation, such as spring ephemeral wildflower, are emerging and the last thing you want to do is unknowingly destroy any plant life.

As a final word of caution, don’t worry if morels aren’t magically popping out of the understory on your hunt. If you are like me, any mushroom hunt is successful if I get a chance to observe nature on a nice day.