On The Hunt For The Elusive Morel Mushroom

I’m going to totally nerd out here and fully admit that I am a card carrying member of the Alberta Mycological Society. I love mushrooms and I’m proud to admit it. The funny thing is, you couldn’t pay me to eat a mushroom as a kid. Thankfully I outgrew that as an adult and now I’m spending my weekends hunting for them in the forest.

A little over a year ago, my husband and I decided to join the mycological society. We’ve been interested in mushrooms for awhile and had been thinking about joining the local mycological society for a few years but of course thinking and doing are two different things. It was after a long winter of being stuck indoors and we were itching to get out and connect with nature. Finally my husband went ahead and signed us up for a membership and about a week later, we were driving out to go on our first society foray.

Our first foray last year was a bit disappointing – we didn’t find any mushrooms and then almost ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road (thank goodness for farmers who are smart enough to always have a can of gas with them). Thankfully that first experience didn’t deter us and we were back out the next weekend in search of those delicious morels.

Now is the part where I tell you that you should not go out and try to hunt mushrooms on your own, especially if you are planning on eating them. First of all, there are lots of animals in the forest that could kill you, especially if you’re by yourself. Remember: safety in numbers, go with 4-5 people and stick close together. It doesn’t hurt to carry bear spray as well, especially in grizzly bear country. Second of all, there are a lot of mushrooms in the forest that could kill you, or at the very least, make you very sick. If you want to try hunting mushrooms, connect with your local mycological society, or with a mushroom expert in your area. Never, ever eat a mushroom that you cannot identify – and also know that there are some poisonous mushrooms that look almost identical to their non-poisonous siblings. Mushroom hunting is fun, but also a bit dangerous.

Porcupine Hills

Our first foray of the season out to Porcupine Hills – It was a beautiful day for hunting!

We were actually on the hunt for two mushrooms this time: the morel, and the verpa bohemica (otherwise known as early morel or false morel). The distinguishing feature between morels and verpas are the cap – verpas will have a cap that hangs free from the stem of the mushroom. Verpas will also start out with a cottony inside, but it will eventually become hollow as they age and morels will be completely hollow on the inside. The first time we came across verpas, we were told they were edible with caution. Meaning, some people have a reaction and some people do not – particularly gastrointestinal reaction and sometimes temporary paralysis. Living on the edge, we decided to try eating them. Luckily neither of us had any reaction at all. Most of the literature I read on verpas said to not eat them, but we were assured by seasoned hunters that they were most likely fine – and if we did have any reaction, it would only be temporary. Don’t take my word though, I can only speak to my own experience.

Morels Hiding

Can you see the morels? You need a pretty good eye to spot them – take your time to survey the forest floor and you’re bound to find some.

Morel hunting seems like it might be boring, but it is anything but. Morels are everywhere and nowhere. Meaning, they will pretty much grow anywhere in the right conditions, but are often really, really hard to find. One year you may find the mother load, and the next year there will be nothing in the exact same site. Hence why they are so expensive to buy in the store (if you can even find them). It seems that if you are lucky enough to spot one morel, you’ve already won. They like to camouflage themselves in with the landscape, often blending with the dead leaves. When you do see one, study the landscape and figure out what sort of conditions they like. The morels I found were under a poplar tree, which we’ve been told is something they like. They also prefer moist conditions, often near sloughs and wet areas.

Morel Mushrooms

Sometimes you may come across something that looks very similar to a morel or verpa, but it is not. And it is poisonous and may/may not kill you, so don’t even risk it. It’s called a gyromitra and it is a bit lighter in color than a morel, closer to a verpa (of course depending on where you are located in the world, the color can be varied), but it appears more “brainy” looking, if that makes sense. The main way that you can tell it is the poisonous kind is by carefully cutting it open and seeing what it looks like on the inside. True morels are hollow and verpas start off with a cottony inside which turns hollow as they age, whereas the poisonous gyromitra have a solid stipe. When you’re cutting them, ensure not to use the same knife as you’re using to cut the mushrooms you plan on eating and do not touch them with bare hands. We’ve also been told it is dangerous to breath in their spores, so basically, unless you know for sure it is a morel or a verpa, don’t go near it. In my experience, it was pretty obvious which mushrooms were morels and verpas and which ones were gyromitra, but mushrooms could look different in your area, so walk away if you are not 100% sure what the mushroom is.

Little Brown Mushrooms

We came across a few mushrooms we couldn’t identify, like these ones. We like to call them LBMs (little brown mushrooms). It’s best to leave them be.

I think it is every mushroom hunter’s dream to come across the morel mother load. I wish I could say that we hit the jackpot this time, but unfortunately we did not. I found two morels and my husband found one. We ended up going with the group that didn’t find many mushrooms at all. The other group did very well – we were envious of the people carrying back bags of morels and verpas. Our three mushrooms will get thrown in to a pot of soup this week. I’m happy with the small haul though – it is better than nothing!

Shooting Star Flower

I couldn’t resist sharing a photo of the shooting stars in bloom – they were everywhere!

We’ll most likely go out again a few more times this summer, looking for various types of mushrooms, depending on the time of the season. If you’re at all interested in mushroom foraging, I highly recommend connecting with your local mycological society. Going to the society’s organized forays has been great for us – they do all the work of finding potential sites and you just have to show up. Plus, there are always a few experienced pickers who are very knowledgeable and are more than happy to talk mushrooms with you.

Please note that I am not a mushroom expert by any means, all words are based on my limited experiences.

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