[Woodpecker pecking on tree trunk]
Jill: Hey there, and welcome back to another episode of Nature Boost. I'm your host, Jill Pritchard, with the Missouri Department of Conservation, bringing you a very special seasonal episode today. I am out on one of my first mushroom hunts. I'm looking for morels, and I'm so happy to be joined by the expert, MDC's State Botanist, Malissa Briggler.
Malissa, thank you so much for joining me out here today. It's a beautiful day. We've just had a few rainy days here in mid-Missouri. And so, that should mean good habit for some morel-picking?
Malissa: We're hoping so. It was kind of some cold rainy days. So, now, it is a nice, warm, sunny day, so hopefully it's making those areas not only wet but also warmer. And, yeah, I would totally expect some morels to be coming up today.
We can look around and see a lot of early-spring wildflowers that are coming up, and that's always a good sign. Some people that are really serious about mushroom-hunting, they pay attention to the soil temperature, which is nice, but a lot of people don't really know what the soil temperature is. But when you kinda look around and you see some of these early-spring flowers coming up — a lot of people are familiar with May apples. They're the real big leafy plants that usually come up kind of in clusters, and real easy to point out and see. That's a good indication that it's about time to be looking for morel mushrooms. And so, yeah, I'd say the next couple weeks is kind of peak time to be finding them. So we're hitting it at the right time, I think.
Jill: Okay. Awesome. So, where exactly, as we're out searching — you know, where should my eye be going? What should I be looking out for to try and find them?
Malissa: Well, so, um, I think it's always a good idea to be looking for dead stumps or decaying organic matter, meaning fallen logs or, certainly, trees that look to be dead or are dying. It's a little bit more difficult, this time of year, because there isn't any leaves on the larger — you know, the hardwood trees, but, um, we should be, uh, able to kinda tell, you know, if there's a dead or dying stump, or a trunk of a tree standing there, to look around those areas. And the reason why is that fungus is actually breaking up that dead or dying tree, and is growing more prevalently in that area. So, what we're actually seeing when we pick up a morel mushroom is the spore-producing body of that fungus. So, the fungus is actually growing deep in the ground, and decomposing that organic material, the rotting logs and wood. But what we're looking for is what it's producing. And if you've got more of that fungus growing around, you've got more of the mushrooms growing.
Jill: Okay. All right. So, we need to be looking for kind of dead trees, decaying — like, maybe fallen logs, things like that?
Malissa: Yup. And kind of, you know low-lying areas. We're still kind of early in the season, so places that get more sunlight — so, um, southern-facing slopes and things like that, that just get warmer a little earlier. Now, as the season for grasses and the temperatures warm up, generally, then, you know, they'll be kind of everywhere. Um, a lot of people do like low areas, though, that stay fairly wet. But that's not necessarily a rule. You can find mushrooms in upland areas too. If there's really thin soils and a lot of exposed rock, you're probably not going to find morel mushrooms. But people report finding them on higher ground too, not just along streams or rivers.
Jill: Something I thought about is, if somebody finds morel mushrooms in one spot, are they guaranteed to come back in that same spot every year?
Malissa: Not guaranteed, but, you know, it's always good to check. It's a good possibility. So, you know, you hear a lot of people finding hundreds and hundreds every year, and they get real serious about it, and stuff. They know some good spots, too. And it's kinda like your favorite fishing spot. You don't really wanna let that information go easily, only to the closest people you have or something. But yeah, it's not a guarantee, though. Sometimes they come up, and sometimes, for some reason, it just didn't happen that year.
Jill: Well, I'm feeling very lucky today.
Malissa: Me, too! Me, too. Yeah. I'm always optimistic when I start out. But, you know, even if you don't find anything, you have spent some time in the woods, just relaxing, you know, just refreshing. It's never a wasted time, mushroom-hunting, I don't think, even if you don't find any.
Jill: That's so true. You're getting your nature boost, no matter what.
Malissa: Exactly. Yes, yes.
Jill: All right, let's hunt. I'm ready.
Malissa: Okay. We're looking. And there's actually kinda more grass than . . . There's some grassy areas here, even though . . . Mushrooms can be growing in these areas, but it makes them a little harder to see.
[Ground crunching underfoot]
Jill: Mm-hmm. I would bet.
And this is gooseberry.
Jill: That's a gooseberry plant?
Malissa: Yeah. And it's flowering.
Jill: Oh, wow!
Malissa: So that's the flower of it.
Jill: Oh, cool.
Malissa: That's one of the earliest-flowering things that we have in Missouri. And so, yeah, in a couple months, they'll be — let's see, April, May — probably in, like, six weeks, maybe, there'll be gooseberries that you can . . .
Jill: That you can eat!
Malissa: . . . take a bite out of.
Jill: Oh, nice!
Malissa: They'll be everywhere! It's very common. Yeah.
Jill: Okay, so I have a question about morels.
Jill: Whenever you find them, are they in a grouping, or do you usually just find one?
Malissa: They're usually scattered about. So, the morel mushrooms actually do get a few scattered and spaced out. And, generally speaking, that's a good thing to keep an eye on for mushroom ID, is how they grow, because some mushrooms grow in a really tight clump. And they almost look like they're growing on top of each other, they're so close together. But, um, but morels do not grow like that. They grow sparsely, you know, scattered about.
Jill: All right. Good to know.
Jill: Now, also, something else important to note is that there is — there's morels, but there's also false morels, which can be poisonous, or are poisonous.
Malissa: Yes. Yes, well, and it is always kind of up for a debate for people, but people do eat them, some people do, and have for a long, long time. But, uh, but there are toxins in that mushroom. And what gets very difficult with the species that we have in Missouri is that, uh, the toxin can be very minimal and could not have a negative impact, or it might actually have enough toxin in it. And there's really no way to tell that. So, generally speaking, we need to just avoid that particular species of mushroom. In other parts of the world, closely related species to that type of mushroom are very toxic. I mean, there's no question. Nobody would eat that. In Missouri, your body will absorb that toxin, and it will store it in the liver. So, down the road, you might end up having problems with your liver and not realize it was this toxic mushroom you've been consuming for years and years and years.
And then, some people do debate, well, you can cook it out and make it not toxic, and then it's safe to eat, and all that, but you really need to know how much toxin is in that mushroom, to make sure that you've been able to safely cook it and eat it. And it's just impossible to know that.
So, to be on the safe side, it is highly recommended that we avoid the false morel species. And some people refer to those as reds, red mushrooms, or some people refer to it as beefsteak. So, it kind of goes by many different names. But they come out about this time of year. I think they actually do come out, start coming out a little bit before the morels do. But their seasons overlap. And they are kind of a red color. So, it's not — I wouldn't think it's too hard to mistake the morels from the false morels, but some people could.
And one easy way to determine that you do have a true edible morel mushroom is to cut that mushroom down the middle length-wise, and it will have a hollow stem. It'll be completely hollow down the middle. But false morels are not like that. They're real kinda . . . still, um, corky, so to speak. I mean, they're not like a corky material, but there's mushroom in the middle. It's not hollow, at all. So that's one easy way to tell the difference.
And, otherwise, the color too. It's a red color, the false morel is.
Jill: Okay. Let's keep lookin'.
[Brush crunching underfoot]
Jill: Well, while we're walking here, let's talk about regulations concerning mushroom hunting. What do you think people need to know?
Malissa: Well, first of all, that you need to have permission, of course, to be on anybody's property, from the landowner. It's tempting when you're riding on some county road or something. It's like, "Ooh, I saw some. Let me go in and get . . . " You really do have to have permission to go on anyone's property.
With public property, you do need to seek the regulation rules for that entity.
So, a lot of people get confused, sometimes, of, like, "Oh, it's a state park, so I'll call the conservation department." Well, the state parks are run by the Department of Natural Resources. And so, they are the ones that set the regulations for that. The regulations for the conservation department include that you can collect mushrooms for your own personal consumption. That is just fine, as long as you're going to eat them, but not to sell, and, certainly, not to be collecting a lot for, like, the neighborhood or anything, for your household. If you're going to take these home and eat them on your dinner table, then, yes, that is — that would be just fine, on conservation areas.
And that's for most conservation areas. But we do have some special regulations on certain places. So, it is important, still, to double-check on where you're planning to go mushroom-hunting, and just check to make sure they don't have any special restrictions.
All of the nature centers, they prohibit any mushroom collecting on nature centers, mainly just because of the volume of visitation they get through. And we would just be overharvesting every year, with so many people going out there to try to collect mushrooms.
And some of the areas around, like major metropolitan areas, just highly populated places, and if there's a conservation area on the outskirts of those areas, sometimes they do have special restrictions, too, that prohibit mushroom-collecting.
But by and large, generally speaking, most of our conservation areas do allow for your personal consumption.
Jill: Just always important, whether it's private property, make sure you have permission, and then just check specifically where you are.
Malissa: Yep, absolutely, whoever that owning entity is.
Jill: All right, let's keep searchin'.
[Distant stream sounds]
Pretty cool, actually.
Jill: It is, yeah. You'd go off on your own little adventure.
Malissa: Uh-huh. Yeah.
What? Do you see something? Oh.
Jill: I don't think it's a morel, but . . .
Malissa: No. Yeah, let's see. I wonder if we can even tell. I'll bet you it's an oyster, because it's still, like, gooey and fresh like it was growing not too long ago. Yeah, that's probably an oyster mushroom, I would think.
Jill: Can you eat those?
Yup, you can. That's the one I talked about the other day, about we have oysters year-round. So, we could talk about that, since we found an oyster mushroom while we were morel-hunting.
Jill: So, what other ones do we have? I know chanterelles . . .
Malissa: Yeah, we have chanterelle mushrooms, and they're highly prized as choice edibles. But they come out in the heat of the summer. So, oh, early July, maybe even as early as late June, but usually in the hottest, stickiest, nastiest times, when you're going to hang out with ticks and chiggers and everything. So, they're worth it, but just bring your bug spray.
But yeah, so, chanterelles will come out later in the year. But the mushroom we just found while we were looking for morels, we found an old oyster mushroom that actually does grow almost — we can find oyster mushrooms throughout most of the months in Missouri, because some species — and they both look very similar.
But we do have two species, and one favors cool weather and the other favors warmer weather. Uh, it's very difficult to tell the differences between the two, they look so similar. But, um, very good edible mushroom. So, you know, I would highly recommend, if you do want to venture out to other edible mushrooms, is to get a good field guide. And the conservation department does produce a good, you know, field guide of the common mushrooms of Missouri, edible and non-, and, certainly, poisons mushrooms too. It's always important to know which ones are poisonous, as well as edible.
But, uh — but yeah, there's some other edible mushrooms. Of course, in the fall, there's several that come out, too. More edibles in the fall exist than we find in the spring, even. But, uh — but morels and chanterelles are the two, you know, most coveted to find. And then, I think oyster probably comes in a close third, there. They're very tasty, as well.
Jill: What about chicken of the woods? I keep hearing that term a lot.
Malissa: Yeah, chicken of the woods and hen of the woods, and they don't look alike, but they are found about the same time of year, in the fall. And chicken in the woods kinda stands like its already wearing hunter orange. It's that color. You can see it from a pretty good distance, sometimes.
Hen of the woods is much more camouflaged. It kinda looks like a ruffled-up hen. It always grows at the base of a tree. And you have to be kinda more, uh, you know, closer to it to be able to see it. Uh, so — so, yeah, those are more fall mushrooms.
Jill: You know what I think is really funny? Is that, you know, we produce a lot of publications, and the most popular are the guide to Missouri's mushrooms, the guide you were talking about . . .
Malissa: Missouri Wild Mushrooms, uh-huh. Yeah.
Jill: . . . and then, the snake guide.
Malissa: Yeah! Of course!
Jill: And it just so happens that your husband is the State Herpetologist and the State Botanist, talking about mushrooms! I just think that's really cute.
Malissa: We make a good team, I guess.
Jill: So cute! You really do. Okay, well, it's not a morel, but . . .
Malissa: It is not, and it is not even edible — because that's another thing to mention with mushrooms, is you want to find that they're fresh. Most edibles, like any other food we eat, is going to have to be fresh, that we're wild-foraging and things like that. So, if it looks slimy, or stinky, or smelly, or gooey, like this old oyster mushroom, then, yeah, we would not want to eat that, even though, in its prime, there was a time it would have been a good edible, it is no longer a good thing to eat, now.
Jill: Not today.
Malissa: Kinda like anything you'd find searching through your refrigerator that is smelly and gooey and old. We don't want to eat it, anymore, unfortunately.
Jill: Well, I haven't given up the search.
Malissa: No. Actually, it looks better than . . . Well, so, now . . . Hmm. Kinda swift there.
Or, we could try, maybe . . .
Jill: Yeah, we could cross right there?
Malissa: Yeah . . .
So, Malissa, whenever you find a morel, how long do they stay fresh? Do you need to eat them pretty soon?
Malissa: You don't have to eat them absolutely right away, but I'd say, within 24, 48 hours, I would — yeah, I want to eat them by then. About 48 hours is the longer time.
Jill: Do you keep them in the fridge?
Malissa: Yeah. I've always kept them in water. I think that probably just keeps them fresh and everything. And you want to be sure, too, to soak them in salt water a little bit, first. That helps kill all the bugs and everything that might be hiding inside. And just soak them . . . It doesn't have to be very long, just an hour or two. And just soak them in salt water. Give it plenty of time for that salt water to get to those bugs and get rid of them. And, yeah, keep them in just fresh water, after that, in the refrigerator.
Jill: What's your favorite way to eat them?
Malissa: Well, I guess the way I've had them most would be fried. Like most Midwestern people, we just kinda stick something in the frying pan and fry it. So, yeah, morel mushrooms fried is very good. Um, and then, I've also had them sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and salt and pepper. That's really good, too.
Jill: Mmm, that sounds amazing.
Malissa: Yeah. Yeah, there's some good recipes, I know, in our Missouri Wild Mushrooms book, too. And . . . yeah, I think there are some different ideas in the back of that book.
Jill: That book's really — if you're out here mushroom-hunting, whether for morels or any other type of edibles, that book is kinda — would really be a good resource to have.
Malissa: Absolutely. Yeah, it gives a lot of common mushrooms you just, probably, walk by all the time and don't think much about. But, yeah, they're mushrooms, too, and, yeah, many of them are in that book.
Well . . .
Jill: I think we've been out here for almost . . . two hours.
Jill: And, uh . . .
Malissa: And nothing to show for it.
Jill: And nothing to show . . . [chuckles]
Malissa: Except for a good time. You know?
Jill: But that's the thing. I've learned so much just walking with you and you pointing out all the different plants, and all the spring ephemerals, and the wildflowers popping up this time of year. It is . . . Even if it's not a success morel hunt, it was not a wasted day.
Malissa: Exactly. Exactly.
Jill: You know what? For my next mushroom hunt, I'm fully prepared now, because I know what to look for, where to be looking. And I feel like, my next one, I've got the tools I need to succeed.
Malissa: Yeah. Yeah. Okay! Sounds good. I had a great time, too. Thank you so much.
Jill: Thanks again to State Botanist Malissa Briggler for all of the information. And, hopefully, your next morel hunt will be successful this season. Be sure to pick up A Guide to Missouri's Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms at a nearby nature center, or find the digital version at missouriconservation.org.
I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation, urging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.