There’s plenty of folk wisdom about when to start hunting morels. They are said to appear when the leaves on lilacs are just starting to bloom or when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear.
But according to retired naturalist Dan Neubauer, of Apple Valley, who has been logging data on morels for the past 40 years, just when you think you’ve got it figured out, “nature has a way of proving you wrong.”
As he guided a group of foragers through Ritter Farm Park during a nature program last weekend, he admits that he tends to look for showy orchis blooming as a marker.
Regardless, it’s clearly a late morel season this year. Because growth depends on the right mix of moisture and soil temperature, our cold spring has led to a delay in morel “popping.” The group he led only found two, a bit of a bummer for them, but good news for those who still want to forage for the fungi.
“I think,” Neubauer said, “unlcss we get a major heat wave, we’ll be finding them, uncharacteristically, in June.”
Where to look for the fungi? (And they are fungi and not technically mushrooms, as they don’t have “gills”) Some people swear by old apple orchards, and Neubauer advised his group to look for “dead but not too dead elms,” (i.e. a deceased elm with the bark still attached), the theory being that morels use their rotting roots as a host plants.
Neubauer also shared his theory, as the foragers pushed through prickly ash and peered into webs of dry grass —you can only find morels once you have discovered, on your person, at least two wood ticks and three scratches.
“Morels only appear to you once you prove yourself worthy,” he said.
But, once you find one morel, there are likely more. “Some of them,” said Neubauer, “are acres and acres large underground.” Still, he said, “you might start spotting them, and then they hide again.”
“They’re magical,” he said, “They really are.”
“Last year, we really had a mother lode,” said Jaber Alsiddiqui, of Apple Valley, who came out to last year’s program at Ritter Farm Park. When he finds them, he said, he uses them right away, in omelets and in soups.
Gerry Berkeland, of Lakeville, who hiked with his late father’s walking stick embellished with a carved morel, said he used to hunt for morels with his dad and that his dad liked to saute them in butter and scramble them with eggs.
“A lot of people bread them,” said Cathy Kitzman, of Lakeville, who hasn’t missed a morel season since 2006. She insists on simply sautéing them with a little bit of thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper. “You don’t want to overpower them,” she said.
“I don’t know how many people tell me they don’t like mushrooms,” Neubauer said, “but they’ve never had anything but the button mushrooms in the store.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.