There might be two months or more until the morel mushroom season is in full swing in this neck of the woods, but it’s not too early to start thinking about it and doing some serious legwork. Increased visibility and a lack of ticks are two good reasons to head out while snow still blankets the landscape, not to mention the fact that the warm weather we’re bound to get in the coming weeks will make us eager to get out and do something. Now is the perfect time to get into the woods and start scouting new places to find those tasty little morsels; I started scouting for morels a few years ago and it has paid dividends. If you’re already a dedicated morel seeker, you have ‘your’ spots that you know and depend on. But if you’d like to expand your territory, or if you’re new to the game, you need somewhere to start. I suggest you get out there now.
Just as you wouldn’t attempt to go hunting in the fall without having scouted where to go and what to do, it’s far more efficient to scout your new foraging spots before the season begins. That way, when you hit the woods in earnest you can eliminate a lot of unproductive acreage and go straight to the places you expect the mushrooms to be. Once you start scouting, you’ll see how much area you can eliminate and you’ll be glad you won’t be wasting time there while morels are waiting. Bring a pair of binoculars if you have them; right now you can see what you need to see without having to walk absolutely everywhere. You can save a lot of steps by just looking through binoculars at anything that catches your eye. Also, bring a personal GPS. You’ll want to keep track of anything worth coming back to once the morels start popping up. If you can use your phone for global positioning purposes, great, but keep in mind it might not work for you once you get off roads, into the woods, and down into drainages. I personally do not depend on a phone for this. To me, these are the two most essential pieces of equipment. Depending on other factors including how long I might be gone, I might also bring a backpack, a lunch, a rain jacket or other layers, and sunscreen.
Where to look
Elm trees can be found just about anywhere- uplands, lowlands, woodlands, grassy fields, and so on. Some likely places to look are hilly forests with rich moist soil, along railroad tracks and fencelines, near the edges of swamps and wetlands, disturbed places like gravel pits and abandoned parking lots, and margins of road ditches and other openings. You may have a large plot of woods where you can roam, but may be just as successful driving around to check some of these other high-probability locations.
What to look for
Here in southern parts of Minnesota, the morels are primarily known to fruit in association with elm trees. More specifically, dead elm trees. Therefore, when looking for places to find morels, it is efficient to key in on areas with concentrations of elms. This of course requires you know an elm tree from anything else. Here in Minnesota, we have 3 types of native elms: American, Slippery, and Rock; in addition, there are varieties of invasive elms known colloquially as “chinese” or “siberian” elm. All these varieties are, on the whole, not easily distinguishable from each other. Not being an acute botanist or taxonomist, I have found that our 3 natives are best told apart by subtle differences in the characteristics of their seeds. Frankly, it’s not really important to be able to identify any specifically where it comes to morels. I will say, however, that the stately American Elm- where still found- seems more capable of reaching the larger sizes that promote the big crops of morels. At any rate, when it comes to knowing whether a particular tree is an elm or not, nothing is more helpful than experience. If you are a tree identification newbie, good luck and just get started. In the absence of leaves or seeds at this time of year, one must rely on the bark and growth habits as clues. The bark color itself tends to be a sickly gray, but may be darker shades; sometimes it appears a bit bleached. Of course, one may confirm an identification with leaves, but by that time of year, morel finds are scarce if not completely gone. Here are some photos of bark from several different elm trees. Note the textures and the general lack of patterns or regularity.
For contrast, here are some photos of bark from many other kinds of trees that one might encounter while in likely morel habitats. Many of them have stronger patterns and/or more deeply textured bark than elms. I have included several examples of green ash, since for some reason many people confuse ashes for elms. Of all the examples below, I believe only the black willow example resembles any of the elm examples. However, what the picture doesn’t portray is how much larger and more deeply textured the willow’s bark is than the elm’s. In person, there would be no confusion between the two.
For the novices, here are some things to look for that will further help you in your search for likely morel-producing spots. In fact, this is going to narrow things down quite a bit. You see, morels are the spore-dispersal mechanism for the morchella organism, and they don’t typically appear until after their host tree has died. The more recently a tree has died, the better crop of mushrooms it will probably produce. Elms that haven’t been dead long still have the smaller branches and twigs attached, and probably haven’t lost much of their bark. A telltale sign of an elm tree is the way the bark will come off not in little chunks, but in sheets, sometimes large. If all you did was roam the woods looking for dead trees with bark coming off in huge pieces, you would do well. It is nevertheless useful to know living elms, as they grow up fast and die off just as fast; just knowing where they are will help you areas to keep an eye on. I have a few big elms that are living for now, but every year I go and look for signs that they are about to kick the bucket and deliver me a big juicy crop. Another thing to look for is the way the branches of some elms will curl inward once dead; I have never seen another kind of tree assume this post-mortem form.
Ready to get out there? The woods are calling!