Go out in the woods right now and look closely. Like a gift from the gods, morels will be poking their little brown cones through the forest ground cover. They are possibly the most cherished and most hunted wild mushroom in North America. And it's for only a few short weeks, usually starting in early May, that the spongy fungi are available. After that, the only place you can find them is in gourmet food markets, where you can expect to pay more than $30 per pound.
But don't go by the calendar, says Tim Gerlitz, of the North Idaho Mycological Association. Nature has her own ways of telling us when to pick the earthy treats. Such as this nugget: "When the apple tree leaves are as big as a squirrels' ear, it's time to get morels." If you're not sure of that critters' anatomical dimensions, he also says that the blooming of lilacs and calypso orchids are nature's signals that it's time to pick morels.
Morels are most abundant in coniferous forests and especially thrive in fairly open woods with filtered light. For reasons that aren't completely known, they seem to favor areas where the ground has been disturbed, such as by fire or logging. This looks like a good morel year to Gerlitz because of the ideal spring weather: rain followed by warmth.
For newcomers, he recommends joining a club or going with experienced hunters on a foray. "All mushrooms are variable. Guide books are helpful, but they only give you one photo." Three people have died in Washington after eating poisonous mushrooms in the last 20 years. That's why Gerlitz says he teaches people to identify the poisonous mushrooms first. However, he says once you learn to identify the morel, "it's a fool-proof mushroom."
The popularity of morel hunting is growing, especially for commercial pickers, who must buy permits. But for recreational 'shroomers, even more than providing a base for to-die-for sauces and soups, morels offer the thrill of a treasure hunt. Once you find one, I'm told, it's hard to stop.