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Search For the Wild Sponge  at Cabela's

Search For the Wild Sponge

Author: Mike Schoby in collaboration with Paul Schoby

Morel hunting is a great outdoor activity for the whole family and a natural adjunct to other spring outings such as turkey hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking. Keeping your eyes open and a bag in your pocket can result in some truly gourmet meals.

A stand of morels found in an old burn area.
If I had been naked, I don't think I would have attracted more attention when I entered the office and unveiled my odd-looking weekend collection. Morel mushrooms create quite a stir among lovers of this succulent treat. I was beset by questions. "Where?" "When?" "How many?" and "How do you know they are safe?"

I called on my Dad for more information. I knew he had played this game for years across many of the lower 48 states and a good piece of Canada and Alaska and lived through it. The following reflects his accumulate years of experience.

Sponges
Webster's unabridged lists many definitions of the word "sponge." They include such diverse things as "marine invertebrate," "free loader," "drunkard," and "un-kneaded bread dough." It does not include the one commonly recognized by farm boys and other knowledgeable outdoor people of the mid west. To them, "sponge" calls to mind a single thing: the morel mushroom. It is an apt term. The morel strongly resembles a small sponge atop a short pale stalk. They are an epicurean delight and avidly pursued. During the short spring season, hunting for mushrooms (often pronounced "mush-a-roons" in local dialect) becomes the primary topic of conversation in the little town cafes and gas stations, even surpassing the weather. Discussions will be rife with odd terms such as "little grays," "big yellows," "smokies," "blacktops," and "spikes." To these folks, "mushroom" refers only to the true morel and a few very closely related species. All other wild fungi are "toadstools" and considered suspect.

Although success is widely discussed in terms of numbers and varieties, pickers are very tight lipped about specific areas and locations. Even so, secrets being hard to keep, serious hunters often hit the woods very early in the morning to beat others to their "secret" spot.

Morels are not only found in the Midwest. They are widely distributed across most of the U. S., Canada, Alaska, Europe, and Asia. In some areas they are quite prolific and large quantities are gathered and sold commercially. Nationally, morel gathering is a multimillion dollar a year business.

Mike Schoby sitting at his desk after a morning of picking.
Identification
The morels are generally distinctive and easy to recognize once identified, even though there are several varieties that differ considerably in color, size, and shape. Many excellent guidebooks are available and can be helpful, although the casual collector doesn't really need to get bogged down in the scientific mumbo-jumbo of Latin names and taxonomic classifications. A knowledgeable acquaintance can probably confirm your identification. His credibility will be enhanced if he tries to talk you out of your find or is overly inquisitive about where they were picked.

The true morels (commonly referred to as "sponge") have a definitely "pitted" head that is directly attached at the base to the stem. Cut lengthwise they are hollow with a continuous exterior, like a cheap chocolate Easter bunny. They are the only mushrooms that have this distinctive structure. Size varies from an inch to several inches. Color may be gray, yellow, tan, or nearly black depending on variety and stage of maturity.

Other popular related mushrooms are the "half-free morel" and the "early morel". These often have proportionately longer stems. As expected, the cap of the half-free morel is connected to the hollow stem about half way up into the cap. The stem of the early morel is connected to the cap only at the tip. The stem of the early morel may be filled with cottony pith.

There are several species of "false morels" that should all be avoided. Some are poisonous and are difficult to distinguish from each other. They somewhat resemble morels, but the caps are curled or folded and do not have the distinctive "pits" or "honeycomb" appearance of morels. Reasonable attention to these details should eliminate confusion.

Note the distinctive cap and stem.
Where to Look for Them
Like gold, morels are where you find them. Morels are generally a product of the woodland - mixed hardwood forests in the East and hardwood/conifer forests in the northern and western states. In the drier regions, brushy wooded steam valleys may be productive. They may also appear in odd and various places such as parks, cemeteries, golf courses, fencerows, railroad right-of-ways, roadside ditches, and abandoned farmsteads (especially in old apple orchards). Occasionally they will show up on meticulously groomed urban lots where the landscaped beds have been mulched with bark or other forest products.

Areas scorched by wild fires often have prodigious crops of morels the first season after the burn, with lessening numbers in subsequent years. It's an astonishing sight to see acres of them setting thick, poking out of the ash and charred soil. Similarly, on a smaller scale, they sometimes grow around spots where campfires or brush piles have been burned.

For reasons known only to themselves, morels are very particular about where they grow. A good number is often found in a small patch and none in a large surrounding area that appears to be identical. However, they will commonly reoccur in that same patch in following years.

Morels will relate to specific trees or type of trees. In the East and Midwest, dead or dying elm trees are good hosts. The early morel is common in the Northwest, where it is almost exclusively associated with cottonwood trees.

The best advice is to look closely in all likely places. When you find some, remember the location or mark it on a map. Go back in a few days to check for more. Look there again at the same time next year.

A good set of topographic maps will help find other places of similar exposure and elevation. A GPS unit is also useful.

Mike Schoby as a youth in Washington.  Not morels, but a delectable Boletus Edulis
When to Look for Them
Timing is the most critical factor in successful picking. In any specific area, the fruiting period is quite short, only lasting for a couple of weeks or so. It always happens in the spring. It starts earlier in the middle and southern states and moves north with the warming weather. Therefore, calendar dates are not much help as a broad guide. However, morels will appear at very near the same time each year at a single location.

The best guide to the season for "sponge" and "half-free" morels is the progress in development of related vegetation. Good indicators are: Redbud trees are in bloom, deciduous trees are just starting to leaf, apple blossoms are open, lilacs are starting to bloom, wild trilliums are up and in bloom, and the first spears of asparagus are pushing through the ground. When the redbuds fade and the white dogwoods bloom, mushroom season is done.

As indicated by the name, "early morels", where they occur, come somewhat sooner in the spring. Look for them when the leaf buds on the cottonwood trees are starting to swell and shed their yellow covers but before the leaves emerge. These mushrooms are often found near receding snow banks in some areas.

Just as spring comes later in the north than in the south, it also varies with altitude. Those of us lucky enough to live in mountainous areas can extend the short fruiting period into a long picking season by simply driving a few miles "up hill." In the Pacific Northwest, morel picking may start as early as February, near sea level, and last until July at higher elevations.

Precautions
  • Morels are safely consumed and enjoyed by many people. However, some risks are present and certain precautions must be taken.

  • Be absolutely positive of mushroom identification. Never eat anything if you don't know exactly what it is. If you are not sure, get confirmation from another trustworthy source.

  • Eat only firm, fresh specimens in good condition. Avoid any that are discolored, watery, limp, molded, or deteriorated in any way.

  • Be aware of individual sensitivity. A few people experience a severe reaction to some varieties of morels that others can eat safely. Eat only a small amount the first time you try a new variety. Wait and see if you have a tolerance for it.

  • If you are in an area with poisonous snakes, use a stick to poke around in brushy hidden spots before reaching in.


Summary
Morel hunting is a great outdoor activity for the whole family and a natural adjunct to other spring outings such as turkey hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking. Keeping your eyes open and a bag in your pocket can result in some truly gourmet meals.