Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
When It Comes To Hunting The Elusive Wild Mushroom –
Timing is Everything
April showers may bring May flowers, but they also produce mushrooms. And there’s just something about the mushroom that makes people go absolutely crazy. Succulent and elusive, the morel mushroom is Iowa’s most coveted wild edible. Hunting for these tender taste treats can become an obsession; secret hotspots are guarded to the death. Although spring mushroom hunting is a multifaceted endeavor; choosing the exact time for your hunt may well prove to be the most critical component to success. In other words, when you go is equally important to where you go.
There are plenty of theories for predicting when each year’s peak will occur. Some folks claim, for example, that morels are most abundant when backyard lilacs begin to bloom or the first wild violets appear in local woodlands. True for some years, but completely bogus for others. Another oft repeated theory states that mushrooms attain peak numbers when emerging oak leaves become “the size of a squirrel’s ear”. Seriously? Who, in their right mind, ever tried to maintain a grip on a healthy squirrel while attempting to hold its head next to a budding oak leaf for comparison? In addition to being hard work, I’m also guessing the task would prove to be somewhat painful as well.
Back to Reality: Fortunately, there are three indicators that provide much more credence than squirrel’s ears or blooming violets. Two of the most trustworthy are temperature and moisture. In order to fruit, morel mushrooms need heat. An ideal climate would provide nighttime temps in the low to mid-50s with daytime highs reaching 70 degrees or above. High humidity and a few well-timed showers will greatly bolster the annual crop.
But the out-of-doors is filled with variables and even these factors are less than perfect. Fortunately, there is one mushroom indicator that you can rely on — every single time, every single year. That indicator is the appearance of the season’s first dandelions. Although universally loathed by ultra-urbanized lawn care fanatics, the dandelion’s cheery yellow flower is the only absolute rock solid, will-never-let-you-down predictor of when morel mushrooms will reach their peak. When dandelion flowers appear on open lawns or pastures, [those growing next to foundations or sidewalks don’t count] you can know for a fact that the countdown has begun. Mark the event on your calendar because in exactly 10 to 12 days after the first dandelions open their buds, the peak of the annual mushroom crop will be standing in the woods, silently awaiting your arrival. As sure as brown trout eat mayflies, you can take this tip to the bank – every single time.
Although I’ve spent decades scouring the spring woodlands in search of fresh morels, I don’t have any of those closely guarded “mushroom hunting secrets”. But if ever forced to pick a “number one tip” for finding a sack full of fresh morels, dandelions would be it.
Springtime is a wonderful time of the year to enjoy the Iowa woodlands. While searching for mushrooms, hunters will also encounter a host of woodland wildflowers and the birding is never better than it is in spring. Instead of keeping secrets, we should all be sharing knowledge and enjoy seeing other people getting out into the woods and finding success of their own. The Iowa woodlands are incredibly bountiful and there are always enough mushrooms to go around. Nobody, no matter how expert, can begin to find them all.
Deciding exactly where to go for mushrooms can be a real headscratcher. But knowing exactly when to go is a simple no brainer. Just keep an eye on the local landscape and when the first dandelions appear out in the open, mark the event on your calendar and plan the hunt. If temperatures remain favorable and it happens to rain a bit during the night, you might even want to carry an extra bag – just in case.
When hunting morels, remember to go slow and watch your step. To paraphrase President Reagan, “They can hide, but they can’t run”.