Hunting morels in Wisconsin: Where and when to find the elusive mushroom
Few fungi carry the same mystique as the morel.
There are tastier mushrooms, some would argue. And ones that are easier to find and cultivate.
But few draw out hunters both professional and amateur quite like the morel. One of American mycologist Clyde Christensen's "Foolproof Four" — four edible mushrooms that are common, easy to identify and unlikely to be confused with poisonous species — the mushrooms pop up in the spring in Wisconsin — a golden beacon of hope after a long, cold winter.
But exactly where and when they appear is still something of a mystery — making the search for them as appealing as their nutty, earthy taste.
“The thrill of the hunt is precisely what makes morelling so exciting... and often so frustrating,” Tom Volk wrote on his website. Volk, who passed away in 2022, was a biology professor at UW-La Crosse who was long respected for his morel expertise.
“Until you know spots where morels grow, finding morels can kind of be a crapshoot. They seemingly grow both everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” Michael Zirpoli, a mycologist and science educator, said in a presentation to the Wisconsin Mycological Society in 2021. “The triggers of their fruiting are shrouded in mystery, and old wives’ tales have long dictated our hunting patterns.”
The Great Lakes region is prime hunting territory for the elusive mushroom, with both Michigan and Wisconsin playing host to festivals dedicated to it — the National Morel Mushroom Festival in Boyne City, Mich. (this year May 18-21), and the Muscoda Morel Mushroom Festival in Muscoda (this year May 19-20).
And while most experienced hunters will never reveal their secret spots, many are happy to share general information about the mushroom with beginners. Here are some things to know if you want to join the fungi foray.
How to identify morels
First, an important disclaimer that any forager or mycologist will stress: Never pick or consume a mushroom you cannot identify with 100% confidence, and never consume a raw wild mushroom.
“Some mushrooms are edible and others are deadly, and it's difficult to tell one from another. Whole books have been written on the subject. Use extreme caution!” the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources warns on their website.
That warning keeps some people away from foraging mushrooms. But one thing that makes morels so appealing is they are relatively easy to identify.
There are debates about how many species of morels there are, but they can generally be divided into three groups: black, half-free and yellow, according to “Morels” by Michael Kuo, an amateur mycologist based in southern Illinois who also runs the website MushroomExpert.com.
For the novice morel hunter, however, it doesn’t matter much what kind of morel it is, since overall they share the same distinctive look.
All morels grow about 3 to 6 inches tall, with a brain-like honeycomb cap of pits and ridges that can range in color from creamy white to dark brown, almost black. The mushroom’s cap is attached to the stem near the bottom of the cap for black and yellow morels and about halfway up the cap in half-frees.
An important characteristic all morels share which distinguishes them from their imposter, false morels, is a hollow center. When sliced in half lengthwise, true morels are completely hollow.
False morels, which can be poisonous, are not. They might have some hollow pockets, but they always have some material inside the stem or cap, sometimes a white, cotton-like substance. False morels also tend to have reddish hues and wavy caps.
When do morels grow in Wisconsin?
Prime morel season in Wisconsin is May, but they can appear earlier and linger into June, depending on the weather.
Morels like a Goldilocks mix of daytime temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees and nighttime temperatures around 40 degrees, plus a ground temperature between 50 and 60 degrees, according to Zirpoli. The soil also must be of an ideal moisture content — too much or too little rain, and the mushrooms won’t fruit, he said.
Black morels typically appear first, followed by half-frees a week or two later, then yellows a a week or two after that. It can take up to 20 days for a morel to mature, stretching the season to up to six weeks, if conditions are ideal.
As with other ephemeral things in nature — think fall colors — the season moves with latitudes. So you can start searching for morels in southern Wisconsin earlier than northern Wisconsin and move north as spring progresses.
Some hunters hold to certain natural indicators. Hill’s Morels in La Crescent, Minn., for example, contends that morels near them appear seven to 10 days after the first dandelion pops. Kuo writes that black morels appear in his area (downstate Illinois) when mayapples reach a height of 3 to 6 inches. A post on a Morels.com message board for Wisconsin offered this advice: “A general rule that can be followed is when the lilacs are blooming, it’s time to go shrooming.”
Where can I find morels in Wisconsin?
Generally, morels grow in forests, particularly hardwood forests, according to Zirpoli. They tend to prefer sandy soil near ash, aspen, oak and elm trees — dead or dying elms, in particular. Old, overgrown apple orchards are another favored habitat.
They also can be found in a variety of other environments including in riparian areas along rivers and streams (particularly in southern Wisconsin), forests and sandy dune landscapes along the Great Lakes, and pine barrens like those in central Wisconsin.
Even so, “they rarely have any relationship with particular plants or trees, but instead appear most often in a variety of disturbed habitats,” according to Volk. That includes areas affected by fires or floods.
Early in the season, they’ll pop up on sunny south-facing slopes; later, cooler north-facing areas.
Many are known to reappear in the same area year after year — one reason hunters are protective of their spots.
Some do share their general location with websites like TheGreatMorel.com, which posts those sightings on maps. The 2022 map shows morel sightings across Wisconsin, including southeastern Wisconsin.
That map only provides cities, however, and is based on people sending in their sightings. Since nearly 50% of Wisconsin is covered in forest, there’s a lot of possible hunting ground.
A good starting point is your backyard or neighborhood park. Morels aren't like people — they’re not lining up to see the bluff-top views at Devil’s Lake and other popular parks. In fact, you’ll probably have better luck in places others might not be looking. Use the Wisconsin Community Tree Map from the Wisconsin DNR to search for elms, ash and other hardwoods in your area.
In southeastern Wisconsin, the big state forests — Havenwoods and the Kettle Moraine — are a good starting point. In northern Wisconsin, the vast Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest provide lots of hunting ground.
Talk to a ranger about what kind of trees you’re looking for (elm, ash, apple), and they might be able to point you in the right direction. Or just pick a trailhead and start exploring.
If you go off-trail — which you might want to, since morels right along the trail will be the first to be picked — make sure you have the proper gear: long pants to help protect against ticks, poison ivy and other dangers; bug spray; and navigation devices that you know how to use. A hiking stick can be helpful for not only walking, but also moving leaf litter that hides morels.
How to collect morels
The beauty of picking mushrooms is you don’t need any fancy gear — just a small knife and a sack.
Once you spot a morel worth picking (avoid ones that are young and small, or old and decaying), cut it at the base of the stem near the soil. Clean it of any obvious mud or debris before putting it in your sack.
Some argue that sack should be mesh, to allow spores (which are released from a mushroom’s cap) to be distributed as you’re hunting and help repopulate the area for future years.
Kuo disagrees, pointing out that mesh sacks — like the ones potatoes or onions come in at the grocery store — “tear the mushrooms apart,” and that they aren’t that effective in helping disperse spores (see more on that below). He instead favors a paper bag, which allows the mushrooms to breathe.
That leads to a question that is debated among foragers and scientists, which is if morels have been — or can be — over-hunted, threatening their survival.
How to responsibly forage morels
Kuo writes that for years he stood by the fact that there was no scientific evidence that “picking or over-picking leads to a decrease in the number of mushrooms” in future years. But mycologist Nicholas Money has led him to reconsider that, pointing out that the absence of studies doesn’t mean foragers are not harming morel populations, especially since hunters' effect on the population is difficult to study.
To understand how morels could be at risk, it’s important to know their life cycle. The fruit of morels — the mushrooms you see above ground — are just a small part of the fungus, which has a large mycelium network below ground. Morels are typically triggered to fruit when they need more nutrients, so they send up the little cap that produces millions of spores that, when released, can produce more morels.
While Kuo originally thought “there are so many morels on earth, producing so many spores, that there is no way they could be threatened by people picking them,” Money pointed out that “even though there are many mushrooms on earth, producing countless billions of spores, nature has carefully balanced a survival rate, just as she does with other organisms. … We are messing with this balance when we pick morels.”
So how do morel hunters responsibly forage the mushroom? Some do use mesh bags. Others leave a few morels in each patch they find. Some wave around mature morels before they bag them to encourage spore dispersal.
Kuo writes that the mesh bag practice is probably more of a feel-good one than effective, noting that the act of picking a morel and moving it to the bag disperses spores, since they are so lightweight — more like pollen than an apple seed. While it doesn’t hurt to use mesh bags (except the appearance of the morels, perhaps), he says he finds them irrelevant.
A better-safe-than-sorry compromise might be to use a basket or bucket with holes in the bottom, only pick mature morels you know you will eat, and leave some behind to continue dispersing spores.
Is it legal to pick mushrooms in Wisconsin state parks?
Yes. You can forage for edible wild mushrooms for personal use on most state-owned lands, including state parks, forests, recreation areas and natural areas. Some areas are designated as non-collection sites, however, so it’s best to check with the property manager before you start collecting.
Below are the rules surrounding foraging morels in other public lands in Wisconsin. Note that where foraging is allowed, it’s only for personal consumption.
Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest: Foraging for personal use is allowed; no permit is required.
Milwaukee County Parks: Foraging is not permitted per Milwaukee County ordinance 47.08.
Other county parks: Foraging is permitted in Dane County Parks, which offers this advice for morel hunters: “Check around dead elm and apple trees after periods of warm rain and temperatures in the 70s. The best opportunities are in the western half of the county early in the morning.”
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore: Collecting morels is permitted in some national parks, including the Apostle Islands, where gathering is limited to one gallon per person per week.
Can I grow morels?
Maybe. Cultivation isn’t impossible, but it’s difficult. And like finding them, successful cultivation is more a product of luck than knowledge and skill.
Volk noted on his website that many people have successfully “grown” morels “by simply throwing out the wash water from collected morels into their compost piles, their lawn, or (in my case) under some volunteer elm saplings growing up against the house.”
Only a handful of producers across the world have successfully grown them commercially, but with limited yields. It wasn’t until 2021 that a pair of Danish researchers successfully cultivated large numbers of the mushrooms indoors — after more than three decades of research.
Can I buy morels somewhere?
Yes. Many online vendors sell fresh, frozen and dried morels that were picked or cultivated across the country.
You can also buy them locally from Mushroom Mike at the Tosa Farmers Market from the end of May through the first weekend in July. The market is held on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon in the Hart Mills Parking Lot, 7720 Harwood Ave., Wauwatosa.
The mushrooms also are sold in abundance at the Muscoda Morel Mushroom Festival, held the weekend after Mother's Day in Muscoda, which claims to be the Morel Mushroom Capital of Wisconsin. In addition to bags of raw mushrooms, visitors can purchase morels fried in butter and immortalized in everything from wooden statues to hiking sticks.
You can also enjoy morels at their eponymous Milwaukee restaurant, Morel, which hosts dinners featuring the mushroom in May. Pay attention to the restaurant's website or Facebook page for details about this year's dinners.
How to store and prepare morels
Morels can be stored uncovered for a few days in the refrigerator. When you're ready to eat them, give them a gentle rinse to remove any debris. Slice them in half (a final check to make sure it's hollow and a true morel), fry them in butter, and enjoy.
More: Morels on Toast recipe
Contact Chelsey Lewis at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @chelseylew and @TravelMJS and Facebook at Journal Sentinel Travel.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Morels in Wisconsin: Where, when and how to find the elusive mushroom