It’s the perfect time of year for morel mushrooms to start springing up in Idaho as soil temperatures warm, and already competition to find the tasty, coveted fungi is heating up.
Members of online Idaho morel-hunting groups have been posting their finds for a few weeks. Excited commenters will ask what elevation the honeycomb-capped mushrooms were at and perhaps what region of the state.
But there’s one question you’d better not bother asking: Where’d you find them?
“If you have to ask ... you will never know,” one commenter wrote last weekend in a Facebook group for Idaho morel hunters.
In the world of morels, much like in fishing, game hunting or even huckleberry picking, the whereabouts of fruitful caches are kept secret.
So how can a newbie morel hunter track down the tasty mushrooms when mum’s the word?
Why the secrecy around morels?
Morels are prized by professional chefs and amateur foodies alike for their nutty, earthy flavor. The truffle-like fungi can fetch prices upward of $20 per pound due to their scarcity and short growing season.
So there’s an obvious element to the vagueness with which morel hunters share their finds — no one wants to find their favorite spot picked clean or otherwise disturbed. But the morels themselves are, by nature, a little perplexing, and that adds to the secretive culture around finding them.
Morels are notoriously difficult to cultivate, and the vast majority of each yearly crop is collected in the wild. But where exactly those wild mushrooms will pop up is largely a guessing game.
“That’s sort of the fun (of morel hunting), it’s an enigma,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, an avid morel hunter who works as the government relations director for the Idaho Conservation League.
“It’s different than huckleberries, where you have your spot and you know they’ll be there year after year after year,” Oppenheimer said.
Instead, morels tend to follow wildfires, cropping up in larger numbers in areas that burned the previous summer. But no one really knows why.
“The ‘big game’ in Idaho and the West is in burned areas,” Oppenheimer said.
Coloradans Trent and Kristen Blizzard comb through wildfire data to offer a “burn morel map” of the West each year through their website, Modern Forager. A PDF of burned areas across 10 states where you’re likely to find morels (including “the top 11 burns” in Idaho) will run you $40.
“Because they only grow in recent forest fires, they are not such a secret location and we are able to share new maps every year,” the Blizzards said in an email to the Statesman. “The real secret is to know what burn is the right one to go to — which we suss out in our book and maps for people. Finding the correct trees, elevations, aspects, etc. is the secret there … but, frankly, it is not rocket science!”
The couple said most of the “ ’secret spot’ culture” doesn’t matter for burn morels — the really hush-hush spots are the ones where “natural” morels grow.
“We don’t share our maps of the ‘natural’ morels,” the Blizzards said. “Those are our hard-earned spots.”
That’s a common theme from morel hunters: Hopeful foragers should earn their finds.
The Idaho Statesman asked members of the Idaho Morel Mushrooms Facebook group why they think mushroom hunters are so tight-lipped.
“We put in too much work searching for our spots to just give them up,” one commenter said.
Another agreed: “It’s the time invested up front as a novice that creates the mystique and value. What if we could buy diamonds for the cost of rose quartz?”
Krista Gragg Willmorth, a Treasure Valley resident who blogs under the name The FunGal Forager, said she has shared the locations of natural morels with “a select few worthy foragers who I’ve known long enough that I can be sure we share the same ethics and practices.”
As for beginners?
“With others, I share education so they can put in the miles and learn to get there, too,” she said.
Oppenheimer said he thinks the majority of the secrecy is done in good spirit. But things could become more competitive as the local population grows.
“Things are changing a little bit in Idaho as Boise is booming,” Oppenheimer said. “It’s only a matter of time before we see some limits put on (harvesting).”
(Most national forests in Idaho limit “personal use” harvests to 5 gallons per person per day.)
How you can find morels in Idaho
For the last two years, Oppenheimer has hosted a beginner’s guide to morel hunting at the Foothills Learning Center, teaching newcomers how to identify the mushrooms and what sort of conditions the fungi like.
Attendees are half-jokingly sworn to secrecy — but Oppenheimer never actually reveals where he’s found morels.
Instead, he offers some general suggestions: Morels tend to grow in cottonwood forests, under elms or near rivers. Where you find one, there are often others nearby. They can vary in color from blonde to dark black, and sometimes the best way to spot them is by kneeling, crouching or changing your perspective.
Above all, it’s crucial to be certain what you’ve picked is a morel. False morels and other lookalikes can make you sick.
Look for a pitted, honeycomb-like cap that’s fully attached to the mushroom stem — it shouldn’t pop off or hang free. If you slice the mushroom in half, it will be hollow inside. If you’re at all doubtful that you’ve found a true morel, do not eat it.
Oppenheimer warned hunters to stay safe in burned areas, where trees can tip over or rocks can easily come loose. He recommends morel hunting with a friend, a GPS and plenty of water. And don’t get discouraged if you’re not successful right away.
“Many times it’s just being out there in nature finding fun and interesting things,” he said. “For the most part, the people out picking are just mushroom lovers.”