How can something that exists in the hundreds of billions be considered a rarity, and how can something so prolific be so difficult to discover? The North American morel is an enigma. Prized as a delicacy comparable to the French truffle, the morel commands a royal ranking as the favourite American mushroom (although it really is not even a mushroom, but a fungus), more sought after than the common white button mushroom. Yet, surprisingly few of us have ever found and picked one, even though ‘shroom hunting is a popular excursion for thousands of North Americans.
Morels are, without doubt, the easiest fungus to identify in the wild, and the hardest to confuse with poisonous or toxic cousins. Their unique shape and specific growing environment makes them distinctive, and one of the few mushrooms that almost all of us can eat with gastric confidence. Their Christmas-tree shape, their distinctive ridges and valleys, their common coloring all make the morel a unique target. But, morels have adapted an appearance and typical growing environment that confounds amateur and professional hunters alike.
Found across all of North America, the family of morels possess a camouflage ideally suited to their early spring woodland habits. Each year, thousands of mushroom hunters seek out the delicacy, unsuccessfully. Long-time gatherers will claim that the best places to locate morels is in recent burn sites, or adjacent to decaying elm and ash. Others will claim that these fungi are never located near evergreens. Yet, isolated varieties of morels grow in almost any setting, given the right moisture, light and season combinations.
The claim that morels thrive in recent burn sites has staying power. With the rush of potassium nutrients from ash, and the cleansing of other groundcover from these sites, morels are able, in the first year or two, to establish a firm hold on the site, briefly.
Morels that are found near downed ash and elm also receive a nutrient boost, and tend to be long-term residents of those sites.
Morels’ unusual patterns of ridge and valley make them difficult to spot, wherever they grow. Their early spring appearance means that they are able to hide under the cover of last year’s leaf growth, in patterns of wrinkled, mottled leaf beds. While the ground is dry, the fluffy layer of identical leaf pattern makes the morel almost invisible in the forest floor. But, immediately after a good rain, when the leaf bed, darkened by the moisture, is packed on the woodland floor, morels stand out.
You will also find that color shading of morels tends to match the color of dead leaf carpeting in their region, as will the color of soil surfaces.
Morels, like many fungi & mushrooms, flourish in early spring filtered light, when the ground is warmed but not hot, and moist but not saturated. With this specific growing environment, seasons are short, and progress depending on the longitude of your area. A dry spring will produce little growth, as will a late winter.
Given the versatile camouflage tactics of morels, their finicky growing habits, and their ability to “hide,” even in plain view, it is understandable that they are considered a rarity, in spite of their abundance across almost all of North America.