The season to forage for morels in Minnesota is nearing its end, meaning this long weekend might be your last chance to look for them. But don’t worry — this is just the beginning.
“It's really the first mushroom of the season,” said Peter Martignacco, the president of the Minnesota Mycological Society.
Morels are mushrooms that flush from Missouri all the way up to Canada but only for a short amount of time.
“I think that kind of the short season and difficulty in finding them, as well as the high market price, I think are things that motivate a lot of people” to look for morels, said Mahmood Tajbakhsh, a self-taught mushroom forager of 15 years.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
Morels are related to cup fungi.
“That group of mushrooms and why it's grouped together, it has to do with the way the spores are released … the spore surfaces in those little pits,” Martignacco said.
The little pits make the honeycomb design of morels. This characteristic makes them relatively easy to identify.
Another reason they’re famous? They kick off the mushroom hunting season in the Midwest.
Morels: the mushroom opener
“There's actually some cup funguses that fruit a little bit earlier than morels … but there really isn't any other mushrooms that grow before the morels really do to any great degree,” Martignacco said.
When morels start to fruit and for how long depends on the weather and moisture.
“The soil temperature, 6 inches down, needs to reach at least 50 degrees for yellow morels really to become active and start fruiting. And once the soil temperature gets above 60 degrees it’s over. They don't fruit anymore,” Martignacco explained.
Morels reach maturity between seven to 10 days, so after they are done fruiting morels aren’t around much longer. Tajbakhsh tends to begin searching for morels “a bit before the lilacs are blooming all the way through. And so I'll go for a month, five weeks, and look.”
They can be spotted in April but generally in Minnesota, they spawn around May. “Some people say Mother’s Day,” Martignacco said, but the fruiting varies because of the weather.
Typically, in Northern Minnesota, you will find black morels more often since “black morels fruit at cooler temperatures.” So, when “we're finding yellow morels in the Twin Cities, you can find at the exact same time you can go to Northern Minnesota and find black morels,” Martignacco said.
The season for yellow and black morels ends around the same time. In southern Minnesota including the Twin Cities, this can be through May, but in northern Minnesota, morel season can go into June, according to the University of Minnesota.
Morels and other mushrooms are “up to 95 percent water,” Martignacco said.
“If we have a particularly dry spring, you're not likely to find many morels. If we have a particularly dry summer, you're not likely to find much of any kind of mushrooms,” Martignacco said.
He adds, “A few summer mushrooms are chanterelle, hedgehog, and chicken of the woods. In the late summer-fall hen of the woods, black trumpet, porcini, and honey mushrooms can be found. The mushroom to find after morels is the chanterelle.”
As of late May, Tajbakhsh said, “People are finding oyster mushrooms right now, golden oysters particularly, which are not native to Minnesota, but are showing up all over the place.”
Foragers do not need a permit to forage on state lands. As far as trying to make a profit out of morel hunting, you need a food handler’s license to harvest and sell wild mushrooms according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Identifying black and yellow morels
Where and how to forage morels is kind to beginners looking to forage since they are easy to identify compared to other species. Color is only part of the identification.
“Black morels are a different set of species than the yellow morels. But, yellow morels come in a variety of different colors,” explains Martignacco.
A good trick is knowing what type of trees morels favor.
Morels “associate well with cottonwood trees” that are dead or alive but stressed, Martignacco said. Morels also flush on dying apple trees and live ash trees.
Historically, people looked for morels near “relatively dead elm trees,” meaning they died in the past few years. “Needless to say, with Dutch elm disease, our forests have a lot fewer elms in them than they 40 years ago, 50 years ago.”
“Black morels grow amongst poplar trees on occasion. Yellow morels can grow in association with white pine and red pine on occasion,” added Martignacco.
The size of morels can vary. Martignacco has picked morels 12 inches tall, while other mature morels are only a couple of inches tall. As for the number of morels in one small area, he said “It’s not horribly uncommon for people to find — on a wonderful tree — to find up to 50.”
“I think another reason they're so very popular is because they're very easy to identify. There's not much you can mix them up with,” Martignacco said.
One could be “false morels,” but they are not hollow like black and yellow morels. They also have more of a wrinkled look rather than honeycomb pits. They are toxic, and should not be eaten.
Tricks for ticks!
“Ticks are bad news. From a disease-carrying perspective. We have a very high rate of Lyme disease here in Minnesota,” Martignacco said.
Most people know how to deal with mosquitoes while outside, but “ticks are a little bit different … the best thing is, there's a product called permethrin that you treat your equipment with your clothes. This is a product that's not a repellent; it's actually a neurotoxin to ticks,” explained Martignacco.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “treat clothing and gear with products containing 0.5 percent permethrin.” They have a quick guide on how to prevent getting ticks, where to check for ticks, and recommend showering after being outdoors.
“Tick exposure can occur year-round, but ticks are most active during warmer months (April-September),” states the CDC. Meaning, Minnesota’s mushroom season is within the active tick season.
There’s poison ivy, prickly ash, blackberry bushes and wild parsnip to also watch out for. These plants can cause rashes, stings, scratches and blisters on the skin.
“I don't care if it's hot. I wear long sleeve shirts, I wear long pants, you know, just to protect my skin from any and all of those things,” Martignacco said. “I have friends that wear shorts when they go foraging, so it’s a matter of preference.”
Meals with morels
The first rule with eating morels: cook them.
“It is very important to point out that morels are toxic if not thoroughly cooked,” Martignacco adds, “The toxin has never been identified exactly what it is that makes people sick.”
The first step is preparation. Tajbakhsh first washes them with cold water.
“They have that kind of Honeycomb type of structure around them. So you want to make sure you don't have sand, dirt, bugs, grit on the inside,” he said.
Once they’re washed there are a few ways to prep them for cooking. If you have a lot, you can dehydrate them for later months. There are a few favorite ways Tajbakhsh cooks with morels.
If he wants the morels as the focus of the dish, a sauteed morel with butter and garlic. For adding them for extra flavor, stir-fries and stews work.
If he has a lot and wants to do something a little “different,” he makes “a fish soup — take bluegill, crappie, something like that.”
His family has even made a pheasant back mushroom mole.
“They're very versatile. I think in terms of what you want, and it depends on how many you have, as well the flavor is very good. So, if you only have a few you might want to really focus on them.”
Mushrooms are low in calories and contain antioxidants and vitamins.
Thankfully, when it comes to finding morels, our biggest competition is other people. “In general, most wild mushrooms are not heavily consumed by wildlife,” Martignacco said.
“But, if you're going to eat anything, you really want to make 100 percent sure, you know, that you've identified it correctly … that may take a couple of times picking it before you've decided that, that you're convinced that you have it right,” he said.
Moral guidelines of morel hunting
Etiquette is important when it comes to mushroom foraging. Especially when it comes to “spots” and asking where people find morels.
“The etiquette is nobody's going to tell you … because what you're really asking someone says, ‘Hey, you might have spent 500 hours in the woods, and now you have these spots. Can I just have them so I can come and take the mushrooms you were gonna get?’” Tajbakhsh said.
Putting the time and work in is part of the joy, the fruits of a forager’s labor. The rule is you don’t spread the word. Sometimes, though, people let their trusted friends come along to their spots.
Tajbakhsh said he started foraging morels between 2005 and 2006. If a friend takes Tajbakhsh to their area, he said, “You respect that. You don't tell people somebody else's spots.”
“You tell somebody, and they tell 20 people because they want to brag, because morels are desirable, and you've got 20 people going, then very quickly … not only did you lose your spot, but also there's no more mushrooms for you to pick. And none of those people took the time to walk through the woods getting bit with ticks, and all those times they didn't find anything,” Tajbakhsh said.
A few other rules Tajbakhsh follows are making sure you’re following the law and not being destructive, or minimizing any destruction as much as possible.
“Whether it's a morel or other types of mushrooms, we are only picking the fruit …the fungus itself is all underground, or it's growing in a piece of dead wood,” Martignacco said.
He explained that picking the fruit is not linked to fungus disappearing from the area. The University of Minnesota recommends pinching or cutting stems above the soil, to leave the base in the soil.
“Up until about 10 years ago, or maybe even a little less. Foraging was definitely not a very mainstream activity for people,” Martignacco said. “Because of all this expanded interest, the managers and protectors of our public lands are looking at this, and they're concerned about how this might impact ecosystems.”
Martignacco wants to see a greater opportunity on public lands, “from an equitable standpoint, for people that don't have access to private property, to take advantage” of public lands.
Martignacco added that several cultural groups like Eastern Europeans, Russian, Vietnamese, and Hmong communities are “very avid mushroom hunters in Minnesota …. and it’s part of their cultural heritage … I think giving those groups the opportunity to continue those kinds of cultural activities, as long as it's done in an ecologically protected way, is a benefit for everyone.”
So when it comes to spots, precautions and rules of foraging, “You should make every effort to know what you're getting and be safe. You should get out there, it's a great way to spend time, particularly on our public lands. And be respectful of other people and their spots” Tajbakhsh said.
Mysteries of mushrooms
While mushroom foraging you may come across a species even mycologists might not know how to identify.
“Mushrooms are very, very poorly studied. They estimate that there are probably 1.5 to 2 million species of, I mean, we're talking about fungus in general, and only about 4 percent of them have actually been described … it’s almost nothing,” Martignacco said.
Another surprising fact: Black morels are known to grow after wildfires, but it’s not the case for Minnesota.
“The morels growing, and wildfires that we have in here in Minnesota, don't seem to respond in the same kind of way and it's unclear as to why. But the morels that grow, and wildfires like the ones that are happening right now in Alberta, next year, they will likely have quite a bit of fruiting in those areas they burned,” explained Martignacco.
Another interesting thing about mushrooms is that DNA sequencing is leading to some frustration among mushroom enthusiasts.
“What's really, really frustrating for amateur mycologists is that all the names are changing, because they do a DNA analysis of the mushroom.”
Just because it looks like one mushroom and has similar features does not mean it’s from the same genus.
“When they do the DNA analysis, they find out it's not related at all. Then they give it a new name that's totally different. And, they're constantly reorganizing this stuff all the time. So names that have been stable for 100 years, all of a sudden, have changed,” explains Martignacco.
Proper scientific name identification in Latin doesn’t change what the mushroom is. We can still forage morels and chanterelles if they ever get a new mysterious name.
“It's a great hobby. There's a lot to learn. I'm still learning and there's a lot of different species and things to learn. It can improve anyone's life if they like being outside and wanted a way to do it,” Tajbaksh said.