A Good Season
Western Colorado has been kind to local morel hunters thus far in 2019. It started this Winter with an above-average snow pack. In spring, lower elevations received regular rains while upper elevations collected more snow. Coolish weather has prevailed into June with 70s being more common than 80s and 90s not on the radar yet. This cool and wet pattern produced an epic blonde morel season in our local riparian areas. And the soil has finally warmed at higher elevations – Colorado burn morels are starting. Yay!
Colorado: On The Hunt
Using our burn maps, we began scouting in early June with the snowmelt and warming hillsides. Our first trip last week revealed snowdrifts at 9,000 feet with lots of water flowing downhill as the days warmed. A few days later, the warmth and sun brought out our first burn morels. With the wet weather and the cool spring, the ground struggled to meet the temperatures burn morels need. They seemed to pop first in an unusual location: sun-drenched, ashy and hot burn areas where apparently the ground warmed first. Usually these types of areas offer slim pickings due to their dryness. The downside to picking morels in these spots that they tend to be ash covered and super dirty. The “morel” of the story: visit the sun drenched area if there is plenty of moisture but not enough warmth. Pick quickly before the mushrooms spend days getting ash-blown from wind or soot-spattered from rain drops.
Soon after we found morels in the ashy open areas, they popped up in the more typical shady areas with brown needles on the ground and half dead trees. This was around the same elevation, or even lower. My theory is that the morels came first in the warmer/sunnier areas and then a day or two later started in the shady area. Morels in the shadier area seemed a bit fresher, smaller and less dry.
Because it hasn’t rained in over a week, the morels are “drying on the vine” and have stopped growing (hence the smaller mushrooms in the shadier areas). Surprisingly, they are staying in excellent bug-free condition as they pre-dehydrate themselves for us. I predict that new mushrooms won’t sprout in any abundance until after the next rain – it’s really dry. When it does rain, all those dried morels will rot! As we write this article, there is rain in the forecast again, so, fingers crossed for a new flush.
One piece of conventional wisdom I have been testing this spring is soil temperature. Often morel hunting gurus advise taking soil temperatures to predict the start of these elusive fungi. Over the years we have avoided doing it, not for any good reason really. We tend to study habitat and weather patterns to gauge whether a burn is ready for morels. Honestly, these are gut evaluations and sometimes we get it wrong. At the same time people frequently ask what the soil temperatures are. Experts agree that morels pop in a 50 to 55 degree range. Usually temperature comes up in discussions about natural morels. We took a bunch of readings at Colorado burn sites in the last week and saw temps ranging from 47 to 57 degrees. A huge differential!
Modern Forager Tips
If this conventional wisdom doesn’t produce results, here are some other edicts:
- Morels are slaves to Mother Nature. They only grow well when conditions are just right, no matter how badly you want to find them. Too dry, too cold, too hot, too high, wrong trees – you can’t fight Mother Nature. Precipitation factors seem to be the most important. When conditions are right, they are everywhere and abundant. No great skill or experience necessary.
- Sample the burn. We had to sample several different parts of the burns (and even get some tips from friends) before we were able to find the right elevation and aspect. Be prepared to scout a range of locations until you find where they are at. A good mapping app with GPS is critical to this scouting phase.
- Walk fast. When you are “scouting” (trying to figure out where they are at), cover a lot of ground. They should grow in large numbers and you can walk fast until you locate them.
- Pay attention to microclimates. You will find a vast range of microclimates representing different soil temperatures and humidities. Whether from standing timber, fallen trees, brush, holes in the grounds, or micro-aspects (a small ravine that faces a different direction on the compass for instance), we see soil temperatures fluctuate by 10 degrees within small areas.
- Understand there are multiple species and multiple flushes. That means that each species behaves differently and has its own rules on when and where to grow.
- Morels are hard to predict. They are elusive. They don’t always paint within the lines. They can (and will!) humble you if you think you know what they are going to do, before they do it.
Since soil temperature is not a precise indicator of elevation to scout for morels, here are some of the “natural” signals we pay attention to:
- Cup fungus. Usually cup fungus is present before the burn morels.
- Mountain Lupine. The mountain lupine started blooming about the same time the burn morels started.
- Aspen Leaves. The naturals blacks should pop when the aspen leaves are dime sized… that seems to happen two weeks before burn morels
- Snow banks. Roughly, these are typically 500 feet, if not more, above the area burn morels are coming out.
- Facebook. People often share their finds on Facebook and are generous with elevation details, if not with their actual location. Experienced foragers will share that they are looking but not finding (because it is too early or dry or whatever), but they may become silent when the mushrooms come out (notice we went dark the last week?). Or, they may share which is awesome too.
This year we are trying a few new preservation techniques to see how they work. We will cook them up later and see what is best:
- We always dehydrate our burn morel harvest. Ideally we put them in the sun for a bit to pre-dry, then finish them off in a food dehydrator to ensure no moisture is left.
- Washing before preserving. We usually don’t do this but we got some really dirty mushrooms this year and decided to give it a go. We let them dry up a bit for a day to release more soot (which sticks when they are moist), then agitated them in some water to rinse off more dirt.
- We are also freeze-drying several batches to see how they compare.
- Finally we froze some raw, and some that had already been sautéed as well to see how they turn out.
Here are a few more pics of our adventures. Happy hunting out there!