A SUCCESSFUL STRATEGY FOR FINDING MORELS by Bill Bakaitis

As seasons go, 2008 was a pretty good one for Morels.  I investigated only a small fraction of the potential collecting sites near my home and was able to pick a peck or so at each visit. Others had the same success. The best collector I know, Dennis Aita, wowed Coma members in May with his large flat of pristine fist to corncob sized esculenta collected only hours before the evening's lecture.  

As it happened, several digital images of collections circulated in emails and I soon received calls and questions from curious mushroomers.  "Just how do you manage to find all of those Morels?", they wanted to know. "I have looked and looked and still come back empty handed."       Well, truth be told, if I had to answer in a word, it would be Luck:  forced to add two others, they would be Preparation and Perseverance.

LUCK AND LOTS OF IT:

As they say on real estate, location is everything.  I am fortunate to live in the Hudson Valley, where, within an hours drive, one can go from sea level to mountain peaks 4,000 feet high. Think about the potential in this season extending range.  I have collected Verpa , semilibra and angusticeps in early April an hours drive to the south, and have concluded the spring season in June in the northern Catskills where both Morchella esculenta and Boletus edulis (Porchini) can come to  the creel on the same day.  Potentially, this represents a two months collecting season.  Not bad for starters.

But we are also lucky for the geological diversity found in this region.  The earth underfoot - ancient  sedimentary deposits - have been modified by plate tectonics, scoured by repeated periods of glaciation and flooding, and built up over eons by a rich diversity of temperate vegetation.  The primeval forests were eventually logged by foresters and tanners, cultivated by transplanted European agriculturists, protected by environmentally minded conservationists, and most recently subject to the repatriation of abandoned farms gone fallow.   Such diversity adds to the luxury of a long and often bountiful season.  That same diversity also allows for maneuvering within the vagaries of fickle weather. But that said, where does one start?  

MORELS AND SOIL STRUCTURE:

Consider first the soil.  Morels, they say favor sweet (slightly alkaline) soils; Soils friable with loam and lime are the best.

And yet, I remember that my earliest successes came from a neighbor's farm where I found plenty of Morels in a swamp under Skunk Cabbage.  Dennis Aita was flabbergasted. "Morels don't grow there" he told me. And then I began to find them in clay mines. "They don't grow there, either" He said, but proof, they say, is in the pudding, and there they were, and to this day, there they remain.  Not in every season, but often enough to warrant a yearly look.  This year, in fact, about a third of the Morels found by the Spring Class I conduct for the Culinary Institute of America were found under Skunk Cabbage. 

So why would that be?  Here is an explanation that seems plausible to me:

Although there are dozens of types of clay most seem to be very alkaline.  I used over a ton of blue Hudson Clay (from a freshly dug pit at a productive morel area) to build a French-Canadian style bread oven and learned about the alkalinity the hard way. My hands puckered, peeled and filled with sores while working with the wet clay "loaves" that were used to build the oven walls. (For the second oven, rubber gloves proved exquisitely effective and I have used them ever since while working with this and similar marine clay. Subsequent repair of cracks in the walls of the ovens require the potters trick: use of vinegar to soften and neutralize the alkalinity of clay.) 

It has been explained to me that as clay moves from a dry to a wet state cations, such as Magnesium, and Calcium migrate outwards with the flow of water. Both of these are positively charged and therefore alter the pH of the surrounding soil. This happens most reliably in the springtime when paradoxically even acid rain can lead to a temporary "sweetening" of some soil.

Silts and clays hold water of course and form the liner of swamps and ponds, and even in the dry season Swamp Cabbage seems to be a good indicator of this silt/clay substrate. This plant, therefore, has good potential for directing a springtime Morel search - provided that you disregard the Skunk Cabbage growing in heavy waterlogged muck.

Consider too the association of silts and clays mentioned above with sedimentary deposits.  A particularly good lesson can be seen in the anticlines and synclines formations of the road cuts along the Hudson River.  The ones on Rt.199 near the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge are visited each semester by classes from many area colleges.  They were formed when great tectonic plates pushed together and pulled apart again. 

If you look carefully at these formations you can see how the various strata of sedimentary deposits record the areas geology. Some layers are primarily shale, some limestone, and if you were to follow these layers along the road cut to where the edges of the layers naturally "surface" you will see how they form limestone ridges, often with fens, bogs, swamps and vernal pools. 

This is prime Morel habitat.  Such habitats are to be found throughout the Mid-Hudson Valley, its Highlands, the Catskills, Shawangunks, and the nearby Berkshires. 

In some of these areas the exposed limestone is obvious, in others it can easily be found by referring to industrial activity. Think cement, brick, marble, as well as agricultural limestone mining.

Years ago I was quite interested in wood carving, and in one book on carving technique, there was a reference to a place where a particularly fine limestone was mined.  I obtained Geological and Topo Maps of the area and began to look for the mine. My exploration led me to lots of cobbles and gravel quarries from sites marked on the maps, but no marble mine.  At one cobble site, a thin vein of sugary limestone could be seen still in situ.  Circumnavigating the area on back roads I noticed evidence of an abandoned aerial tramway that went to an equally abandoned railroad siding.  Aha! I thought, heavy mining for sure.  Subsequent investigation finally revealed the mine and the now dilapidated houses that once housed the miners. The quarries were astounding: white, deep, and filled with water of the most beautiful blue. They reminded me of the flooded limestone mines in the movie "Cutters". On underwater ledges were trucks, cranes and tractors of a 1930 and 40 vintage, abandoned as the miners suddenly struck a vein of water and the mine flooded.  

This was a huge mine, but not on the Geological or Topographic maps.  Puzzled, I began to question nearby residents and businesses. It turns out that the limestone/marble mined here was a source of Dolomite important for the War effort of the 1940's and, with due regard for security, all references to it were expunged from official records. It wasn't on the maps, but it was in the ground, and there were plenty of Morels to be found there.  In fact, for years I would often collect a bushel or so from an adjacent, unposted, clay mine.

Interestingly, this was a different type of clay than the Hudson variety mentioned earlier.  When I baked trial bricks from it they looked great but crumbled apart with a slight nudge. Not the stuff to make bread ovens from, unless, that is, you mix in a modest amount of cement, which was also available from the clay and gravel mine.

As I write this, spread out on a table before me is another geological map of this area. There are 15 underlying geological rock types on the map. The Dolomite mine is absent, but it sits quite clearly in one of the long ribbons of "Cambro-Ordovician Limestone" which wander across the map. Some go for more than 45 miles before plunging off its edge, undoubtedly to be picked up on the next section.

As I say, I am lucky to live near such areas, for nearly every ribbon I have investigated holds Morels.  

MORELS AND INDICATOR TREES:

If you were to Google 'clay soil' you are likely to find gardening sites that advise the types of trees that are best suited for growing in such locations. The first one in a recent search I did lists: "Apple, Cottonwood, Ash, and Elm" among others.   If you ask successful Morel hunters where they find their Morels they will tell you under "Apple, Cottonwood, Ash and Elm".  

To be sure, you won't find them under every tree, but here is a strategy that works for me.

Dying trees are best. Why? As I understand it, as a tree grows the soil under it becomes more acid due to a Phosphorus-Hydrogen ion exchange process.  When the tree dies, a sudden reversal takes place, particularly in the root zone (rhizosphere) and the soil here experiences a micro area of sudden alkalinity.

With Elm the Morels will form an arc following the roots out, sometimes for few dozen yards. When you find one Morel, look for another then connect the dots. You will generally find a few more and sometimes will hit the jackpot.  A dying Elm will generally produce for three years, the first year generally being the most productive. The second year will usually be so-so, and the third nearly barren. 

Elm trees often die in a cluster as Dutch Elm Disease is spread from tree to tree not only by bark beetles (look under the flaking bark for their galleries) but also by underground root grafts.  When you find an Elm that supports a flush of Morels, you will want to check out the others nearby in the years following, even though they are currently healthy. And the Elms don't have to be big.  Often 4" to 6" trees will support a nice crop of esculenta.  But it is under trees a foot or more in diameter where you can fill a basket.

This three year cycle persists even if the tree is cut for firewood.  One spring I took all the Morels I could stand simply by visiting the sites along a back country road where a woodcutter had felled the dead Elms. The sites were all well marked by his truck pulloff and the chips produced by the chain saw. 

Before you find a productive stretch of Elms, be prepared to look under 50 to a hundred before you strike pay dirt.

The Mid-Hudson area of New York is famous for its Apple orchards.  I don't think I have ever visited an orchard in Ulster County – in season- without finding Morels. (But then again I confine my visits to orchards in areas which coincide with the conditions explained above.) 

Not every tree, mind you, will produce, but somewhere within the orchard there are dying trees, trees with all the life gone except for one far-off limb where a few leaves and maybe a blossom or two hang on.  That is where to look. Usually you will have to fight your way through wild roses, honeysuckle and poison ivy to find them, but they will be there.

Essential collecting equipment in such a habitat, in addition to a maneuverable basket (like a creel) are thick pants and long sleeved shirt or jacket, boots that reach to the knee (like Wellies), leather gloves (Goat or Pig skin preferred),  and a sturdy pair of clippers holstered to your belt. 

You will have to cut yourself in and out of some of the more productive areas. 

As formidable as this seems, sometimes the Morels are very much out in the open.  On one collecting trip a few years back I found them growing in the town square, right in the middle of the green, at the front door of the newly constructed Town Court House.  The only avenue left for development in this small Apple growing community was to squeeze out a lot or two from between the rows of trees. Easy picking, were these.

As with Elms, the esculenta that come up under Apple trees seem to have a limited run, but it is often for more than three years.  The best orchards I have found are those that have been abandoned a dozen years prior and are being converted by natural succession into a mixed forest. Here the Apple trees will die off one or two at a time and the Morels progress from one tree to the next down the row.  Often there is an extended life to these orchards as Elms become a dominant tree. Under such conditions it is very likely to see the orchard produce for a decade or longer.   

On occasion I will find esculenta under Ash, rarely under Cottonwood. I understand, however, that there are places in the Midwest where Cottonwoods are the only trees that grow in the river valleys and under such conditions that is where the Morels are to be found. 

Special areas.  There are several special areas that also bear mentioning.  Burn sites are often cited in the literature, but I personally have never found them in any of the forest fire areas I have visited in the East.  Abandoned railroad grades, however, with their ash embankments can often be productive.  In New Jersey that is the preferred location, I am told. And the edges of farm fields which receive a regular treatment of crushed limestone can be fantastic.

For Morchella semilibra, the most productive areas I have found have been in rich bottomland areas on a bench just above a swamp.  Butternuts are a good indicator of this type of soil and have proven their worth to me as an indicator tree for semilibra habitat.   Verpa conica, on the other hand, comes rarely and with sweet surprise but always early before the trees leaf out, and always under Apple. Worth mentioning is the total lack of V. bohemica in my 40 years of serious collecting:  Every specimen given to me for identification or confirmation has the 8 spored asci of M. semilibra, not the giant 2 spores that would indicate bohemica.

Finally, late in the season there is often a small pale Morel that will fruit under Tulip Trees ("Yellow or Tulip Poplar": Liriodendron tulipifera).  Some collectors refer to these mushrooms as M. deliciosus. Geoff Kibby gave them the provisional name M. tulipfera.  In some yearsesculenta/crassipes may be found under these stately trees as well.

As I say, Luck has been with me when I look for Morels. Now something of those other two words,

PREPARATION:

Even if one lives in the best of locations a certain amount of preparation is beneficial in greasing the wheels of fortune.  I prepare for the Morel hunt a year or more in advance.

Nakedly stated this may sound absurd and onerous, but the planning actually comes naturally and easily, a few layers at a time, until the early spring when a detailed plan of attack falls into place.

Knowing that productive areas naturally peter out, I make mental note, or at times an actual map, of productive areas as I conduct this year's hunt. These places become the nodes of next year's itinerary. I know I can usually count on some mushrooms appearing in these same places next year, but I also know I must continually explore new areas.

With some understanding of the geology of the area I try to visualize how this year's crop might fit over the geological contours of the land. Maps, past experience, or blind exploration can reveal how the local road system might connect the dots of this year's productive areas. These are probed at my leisure, as I come and go in my daily travels.

Rather than take the same route on a shopping or business trip, for example, I might try various routes to my destination.  This exploration frequently reveals new locations to investigate.   Of great assistance in this preliminary stage of the hunt are the presences of indicator trees such as the dying Elms or abandoned Apple Orchards that can be seen from the road. 

Elms are especially evident during the last of May and first part of June. Once you learn to distinguish them from late leafing Locust, their stark dead skeletons stand out against the tender green of new foliage in the surrounding forest.  A few weeks later the leaf cover of the forest is so thick that they are much more difficult to spot.  Another good time to scout for these trees is in the dead of winter. 

I am always surprised at how much dead Elm there is. It is very rare to travel a road which does not have a stand or two. Even in the thin, acetic shale soils of the Catskills there are stands of Elm. Their presence usually indicates a local patch of loam, silt, or even clay, trapped perhaps by a bend in a stream, or a pan in the sedimentary rocks of the slope.  For obvious reasons, roads that follow valleys are usually the most productive.

Part of the preparation is to keep an ear tuned to the experience of others. Once an old timer told me he would always go to a certain area – location deliberately unrevealed – "during the third week in May" and fill three or four grocery bags from the grass that grew on certain steep hills.  I did not know where he collected but from the clues given I kept my eyes open for the contours of land that fit his description and sure enough the following year collected a bushel from one site, a steep limestone outcropping, where the Morels trooped across the grass like little soldiers.  There was no evidence of anyone else collecting there, nor has there been for the past decade, so I am reasonable confident that I hadn't poached on his patch. 

On another occasion a gentleman farmer from Columbia County and I were discussing farming and deer damage. During the discussion he told me of a hunter who would give him Morels in the spring in trade for the privilege of hunting on his land during deer season. Mention of a well-known historical site and farm tractor repair shop pointed almost directly to the area. I had never collected there, but the geology seemed right and on a trip to Albany in May a few years later I could not resist exploring some Apple trees on unposted land, across the road from the tractor dealership.  Bingo! 

And then, once another Morel collector shared with me a photo of his daughter beside a laundry basket full of Morels. The best find he had ever come upon. They were collected, he said, under the dead Elms on the hillside right behind the basket.  And there in the photo, to the left of the daughter, half obscured by the trees was a clear road marker which I immediately recognized as being near the Hunter Mountain Ski Slope in Green County.  I could never bring myself to go there.

THE PLAN OF ATTACK!

As previously mentioned, the actual route I travel to search out Morels will begin with previously productive areas. I then form hypotheses about the routes that connect the spots I will be visiting. A mental calculus is imposed, the logic of which is scaled to weigh the various factors in play between the spots to be visited. How do the geologic formations, the presence and health of indicator trees,  the availability of unposted land, the possibility of avoiding areas other collectors might have visited, the particular weather pattern of this current season (as well as that of the past summer when this year's crop of Morels would have formed their sclerotia)…. all of these interact and suggest a route to be followed, modified of course by the price of gasoline, the availability of  eating establishments along the way, and the reality of the find..  

It is not unusual for Leslie and I to pile into our car and spend the day going from place to place, from one county to the next, across roads with wonderful names, scenic views, bracing hikes, cooling springs and streams, up one side of the Hudson and down the other, stopping off at the chance Antique Store and/or eatery to arrive home exhausted and content with Morels in our baskets, fine food in our bellies, and a plan of attack tor the next year.

But of course, if we had just one place to visit, it would be the path along that Railroad grade, near that limestone outcropping, where the Elms were dying off.  And there in that seep near the Skunk Cabbage is a place that has never failed..

PERSEVERANCE; THAT FINAL WORD

It is not unusual to visit a site either before or after the prime flush has occurred.

Too late usually means too late, but not always.  This year (2008) we had a spell of warm weather in April which moved the season up a week or so in most locations.  I normally move northward and into the higher elevations as the season progresses and did so with great success this season.  By chance however I stopped off at a spot that had previously sent up an early flush only to discover, late in the month, some very fresh, very large morels. 

Visiting a spot too early might lead you to believe it is barren, but a later visit could be very productive.  I can't begin to count the times this has happened to me, finding Morels sometimes on the third visit.

Once on the East Branch of the Delaware river, long after the Hendricksons had come and gone, after the March Browns, the Apple-Green Caddis, the Green Drakes and Turkey season, I passed a stand of Mayapple, the waxy bloom fallen to ground, and crossed the deep shade of the flood plain on my way to try for trout.  The bottom land was full of knee deep fern,Symplocarpus in full standing leaf, and just before the six foot tall corridor of Japanese Knotweed was a young flush of esculenta under the Apple Trees where in the Fall a deer hunter would have his stand. It was not the only time that my creel felt comfortably full before I reached the stream.

Once planned, visit your sites early and often. As Shelly put it "hope, till Hope creates From its own wreck, the thing it contemplates." The worse that can happen is that you might get skunked! 

But then again, that might be a good thing.