Large wildfires last summer and deep rain this spring brought a bumper crop of morel. In addition, fewer pickers are coming in from other states or countries, so there’s less competition! Those of us thawing out from a snowy winter and a harsh pandemic are racing to get out and pick!
The question on everyone’s minds is: Where do I go? To answer that, it helps to know a bit about morel ecology. Like other mushrooms, morels germinate from spores and grow thread-like cells called hyphae underground, collectively called a mycelium. Unlike many other species, morels then form a special tuber-like structure called a sclerotia, which allows the fungus to survive the winter. In spring, two things could happen to the sclerotia: it could grow more mycelium, or it could grow morels! The underground mycelium is thought to be mycorrhizal with trees, that is, it exchanges dissolved minerals and nutrients for photosynthetic sugars. “Naturalized patches” of morel can be found fruiting in small numbers under cottonwoods year after year. “Burn morels” exist in conifer forests for 80 to 100 years, cycling between sclerotia and mycelium, until the forest burns. The spring after the fire, the sclerotia grow morel fruiting bodies, and trillions of spores rise with the rain clouds, off to find other forests.
Morels are confoundedly cryptic. If you remember these tips, you will have a better chance of finding some.
-Go the day or two after a deep rain in the spring– May through June.
-Find south-facing slopes, then look for patches that are so severely burned that the mineral soil is exposed. The sclerotia form deep, below the organic layer, so that is where the morels will be.
-Search with gratitude, and when you pick them, leave a few for other hunters and for the fungus.
All activities in Alaska have risks. Consider these in preparation! Standing dead trees can fall without notice. Watch out or wear a helmet.
False morels, especially genus Gyromitra, cause severe gastrointestinal distress. Learn the differences here: https://livebreathealaska.com/2019/09/25/foraging-morel-mushrooms-tips-on-how-to-find-and-identify-and-prepare/
Spring also means bears are waking up. Bear spray is a good deterrent!
[…] I found the most morels on sun-facing slopes, in patches of ground that had been burned to the mineral soil. I wrote more about why this in my article Morel Ecology for “Live Breathe Alaska”. https://livebreathealaska.com/2020/06/03/morel-ecology/ […]