Every spring, there is a group of enthusiastic woodland hunters that frequent forest stands across Illinois in search of a mysterious and elusive forest fungi.
Many are armed with years of practical knowledge and experience to inform the success of their hunt, while many (like me) simply get lucky by stumbling upon this sacred specimen in their woodland wanders.
One thing that all these determined foragers share is the love and thrill that finding native morel mushrooms (Morchella spp.) brings.
It is truly magical to spot a single morel amongst the forest duff. Often times, seemingly out of thin air, many more morels suddenly come into vision to constitute an entire patch of fungal fruiting bodies, likely all part of the same organism, leaving the mushroom hunter surrounded by a tiny stand of delectable fungi.
The mystery surrounding how, when and where to find morel mushrooms has long haunted many a forest forager. The well-experienced mushroom hunter certainly has many tried-and-true methods and favorite hunting grounds, sometimes handed down for generations.
It is an interesting inquiry to listen to some the secrets dispelled from a seasoned veteran, as the methods and stories about finding the best conditions and locations are perhaps more abundant than trees in the forest.
If there is one thing for certain, a veteran morel hunter will never disclose the true location of their hunting grounds. And it is often difficult to ascertain whether shared information is truly something to note or simply a ploy to lead the inexperienced listener astray and protect the harvest.
In the words of a veteran morel hunter from Southern Illinois, “The person who has the most to say about morels is often the one filled with the most hot air.”
Interestingly, the scientific community has yet to correlate many of the traditions and backcountry knowledge that have been applied to the hunt. In fact, morels remain incredibly difficult to produce in cultivation due to our current lack of understanding.
It is certainly true that a great variety of factors in nature come into play to produce morel fruiting bodies, and there likely are so many to account for that research has difficulty isolating the specifics.
In Illinois, three species are known to occur, the yellow morel (M. esculenta), the black morel (M. elata) and the half-free morel (M. semilibera). While many factors are unknown, we do know the approximate timing of their appearance, which occurs as early as March in southern Illinois and typically follows in a matter of weeks across the state, all based on spring weather.
As spring morels appear each year, it is a great time to be in the woods due to milder weather and an abundance of wildflowers. However, the biggest draw for most morel hunters is the culinary delight these elusive fungi provide. They are truly delicious, adding a unique taste of nature to any dish or sufficing nicely on their own as a side.
Whatever the motivation for morel hunting, it is important to stay vigilant as you navigate the spring forest understory. While research has shown that recreational morel harvesting is sustainable in most settings, there are other impacts to woodlands when humans wander about studying the forest floor.
“While the actual act of picking a morel may have little impact on woodlands, it’s just the human disturbance that we worry about,” says Nate Beccue, natural-areas manager at Allerton Park near Monticello.
Due to its long history of protection, Allerton remains one of the most intact and pristine forested ecosystems in central Illinois. Every spring, the park hosts an amazing and unparalleled display of wildflowers, many of which are spring ephemerals, meaning they complete their entire life cycle prior to leaf out of the tree canopy. So, the tiny window of their above-ground existence each spring is an incredibly sensitive time.
“Allerton’s rule is ‘stay on trails,’ which applies to any activity in the park,” Beccue says. “It’s meant to protect the one-of-a-kind resource we have here, and our trail system provides great access and viewing of all that Allerton has to offer.”
If you plan to hunt morels this spring, be sure to properly identify any fungi you collect before consumption. Many local natural areas do not allow collection, so check ahead of time and tread lightly when in the woods.
As a final word of caution, don’t worry if morels aren’t magically popping out on your hunt. If you are like me, any mushroom hunt is successful if you get a chance to observe nature on a nice day.
Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with UI Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. This column also appears on his ‘Garden Scoop’ blog at go.illinois.edu/GardenScoopBlog.