It’s morel hunting season in Illinois. 

The prized gourmet mushrooms can be found all across the state, from March to early May, mycologist Joe McFarland told The Center Square. Mid to late April, when it warms up but before it gets too hot, is prime time for morel foraging.

Morels are cone-shaped mushrooms, revered by chefs and gourmands for their earthy, woodsy, nutty taste. Dark morels are rarer with a subtle, almost smoky flavor.

Morel caps are soft and spongy, resembling shriveled walnuts. Morels can be nut brown and black to light yellow. It is easy to positively identify a true morel because they are hollow inside, like some chocolate Easter bunnies. 

Morels are highly perishable. If you can find them in specialty markets, they cost $20 a pound or more. Picking your own morels on a spring trek in the forest is a treasure hunt with a delicious reward. 

So how should a novice mushroom hunter get started? Get some tick spray. Wear long pants. Bring a pocket knife to cut the stems with a clean cut. Carry a mesh bag so that air can circulate around the delicate mushrooms and their spores can spread.

“Morels are famously hard to spot because they blend in with the forest floor,” McFarland said. 

A walking stick can be handy when you are rooting through plant matter and leaves. Whatever you do, never pop a raw morel in your mouth the way you would a wild strawberry.

“You must cook morel mushrooms. Most wild mushrooms need to be cooked to make them edible,” McFarland cautioned. 

Get a book. Look at a lot of pictures. There is a false morel that somewhat resembles an authentic morel. Side by side, a reasonable person would never confuse the two, McFarland said. When in doubt, cut one in half. 

“Morels are not solid in any way. You slice them open and they are completely hollow on the inside. That’s a true morel,” McFarland said. 

The best way to find morels in the woods is to learn to identify the trees that are hosts for morels. 

“Most good morel hunters are also tree hunters,” McFarland said. 

The root systems of specific trees – both living trees and dying trees – create habitat for the morels.

The first tree people think of in connection with morels is the American Elm. Since the 1930s Dutch elm disease has been killing elm trees in the U.S. The elms persist and new ones grow. Spot a dead or dying elm and a bonanza of yellow morels may be nearby. 

“Live ash trees can be really good for yellow morels and black morels as well,” McFarland said. 

Cottonwoods, sycamores and silver maples are more trees that morels like.

Dead and dying apple trees are famous hosts for morels. Beware of morel hunting in old apple orchards or near railroad rights of way, McFarland said. Years ago now-banned pesticides were sprayed in orchards and along railroad tracks, McFarland warned. 

“Some of the heavy metals in the pesticides that were applied 30 years ago still persist in the soil,” he said. “Morels are famous for absorbing and picking up whatever contaminants are in the soil.” 

No matter how tempting they look, don’t eat morels from areas that may have been contaminated with pesticides, he said. 

McFarland and his fellow forager Gregory M. Mueller wrote the book Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide, published by the University of Illinois Press.  Edible Wild Mushrooms is available for sale and for download on Amazon and many other book websites. McFarland and Mueller also have a website Illinois Mushrooms.  

Be wary when scrolling online for information, McFarland said. There is a lot of morel misinformation out there. McFarland highly recommends attending meetings of the Illinois Mycological Society in the Chicago area. 

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