Categories: Mushrooms

RIP: Colorado Morels 2020

The Wait is Over

After months of waiting, watching and hoping it seems like the Morels aren’t really going to bless Colorado this year with their presence.  Of course last was a banner year for morels – yellows, blacks and burns – across the state.  This year? Not so much.

If there is one thing nearly as fun as hunting morels, it is theorizing about why and where they will fruit and predicting when it might happen. What happened to the morels in 2020? Why didn’t they show? Here is a quick forensic analysis: it didn’t rain.

Precip

Below on the left is Colorado’s precipitation map for April 2019, and on the right is April 2020. Compare the two months. This data is charted as a % of average with each colored dot representing a measuring station. Orange and red are below average. White is average. Green and blue are above average.

April 2019 Precipitation by station
April 2020 Precipitation by station

Below is the same area in Colorado, same months. The ratings in this case are by district, which are easier to see. Generally speaking, last April’s precipitation was 50% above average, this April, 50% below average. 

April 2019 Precipitation by zone
April 2020 Precipitation by zone

These comparisons tell most of the story. BTW, May 2019 vs May 2020, looks pretty much the same. So does June.  

Snowpack

What about the Snowpack you ask? Good question, and same problem. Below is a chart with 2019 snowpack (Black) vs. 2020 snowpack  (Dark Gray) in the Colorado River Basin. The snowpack was gone by June 6th of 2020. On June 6th of 2019 it had 9.5 inches of water – in snowpack form. That equates to 4 more weeks of snowmelt in 2019 than 2020. Last year on June 6th, there was a lot of water running down the mountains over morels that were just beginning to fruit and it would continue for weeks. That snowpack buffers the rain by creating downhill moving moisture in lower elevations and actual snow-cover in higher elevations.  

Note: this year (green line) was an average snowpack, and would have probably been just fine for morels if it had rained. 

Patterns

I have noticed that morels seem to require a healthy weather pattern in the weeks or even months leading up to their fruiting time. Specifically, if the 30ish days prior to their estimated fruiting time sees drought-like conditions, they don’t seem to recover that season.   

Some foragers will of course find a few mushrooms, even in the harshest of conditions. Their spots have spots. Or, they get lucky. They will explain micro-climates, and rightfully so. But, this post covers macro: an all out fruiting with lots of mushrooms – a good “season.”

Obviously, I am not a mycologist, but I do pay attention and also did a bit of research. The morel lifecycle really fits with the above observations. The morel, as an organism, lives year-round underground with all of its bros. They are always with their specific tree. Maybe in the tree itself too?   

As a year-around organism, it may be be a wispy-white mycelium or a nut-chunky clump of sclerotia. At least that is how I see it. That underground organism, the sclerotia, has to be happy with its environment. If it’s happy, it will send out small primordia (which will then become morels – the fruiting bodies we chase). This whole process – from happy sclerotia, to small primordia, to a pickable mushroom is about a 30 day affair. At the risk of an over-used metaphor: it is like an apple tree. The blossom has to happen successfully for the fruit to be possible.

We have witnessed morels fruiting right after a rain and growing rapidly in 2 days to a pickable size. Sometimes morels grow real slow (especially when it is cold), and sometimes they stop growing entirely (especially when it gets dry). My theory is that if the weather has been good for the last month, those primordia are just at the surface, ready to pop… they just need some good moisture and and warmth. They might even be small mushrooms already if you look real closely. To the casual observer, it looks like the mushrooms came from nowhere when in fact they spent the last few weeks getting ready for that moment. When the time comes, if there is some moisture, some will fruit. If there is abundant moisture, they will fruit abundantly.

Please keep in mind, this article is specific to morels and probably doesn’t apply to any other types of mushrooms. We would love to hear what you think. I will gladly revise the article if any experts weigh in and comment below with helpful info.   

What are the perfect conditions? Probably 50% above average in Colorado. That means some good precipitation at least once a week in the weeks leading up to fruiting. A few good soakers will do it. After seven days of no rain, probabilities start going downhill fast. The primorida and sclerotia begin packing up their bags for the season. Remember though, a good snowpack can buffer that a bit and create large areas with retained moisture, especially for the black and burn morels in their mountainous habitat. 

There is always next year!

A few online resources:

Cropping the French Black Morel A preliminary investigation by Barnes & Wilson

The Morel Life Cycle by Thomas J Volk – recommended read with more info on sclerotium especially.

Online Rain Research Resources  has the precipitation map resource links.

 

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