If there is one thing a really good morel mushroom hunter takes pride in – it is his or her ability to identify the trees and vegetation in the woods for one purpose – to find more morels. When the morels make their appearance in the spring most trees are just starting to bud, so leaf identification is often difficult. One must rely on identification through other means such as bark, tree shape and other characteristics. It is well known in the morel hunter’s bag of knowledge to know which trees to look for. The Great Morel hopes to educate and enlighten you on the common trees of the morel.
Let’s start with an overview the trees of the morel and then we’ll drill down to each of the main trees where morels are commonly found.
Note: if anyone would like to educate themselves more on the Dutch Elm Disease, the University of Minnesota Extension has a really great page – click here.
The elm tree is known by most to be the tree of the morels. So why is that? The Great Morel didn’t seek scientific knowledge for this article to answer that question although we will touch on the subject. Seasoned morel hunters who know morels know the morel and the elm have a thing going on in the woods. We’re not going to call it an affair in the woods, but one could make the assumption the two have a special bond. Let it be known, in the morel hunting folklore – the elm is king.
Jason Edge (1) from MorelMasters.com and co-founder of HowToGrowMorelMushrooms.com had published a book a few years back titled “Find the Tree, Find the Morel” and with his help and expertise, along with The Great Morel we hope to add insight to the elm and several other trees of the morels.
Morels and the Elm Tree
Let’s start by looking at the characteristics of the old elm tree, and then we’ll talk about the young aspiring elms which are often sought out as well. Searching for that completely dead elm is key according to Jason – “Elm trees that have completely died in the summer or fall prior to spring are the ideal tree to find morels under in the spring. The first spring the tree fruits is the best. To identify this tree while hunting takes a keen eye and while hunting for morels start by studying the tops of the trees. Look for trees with no buds or leaves with all the bark attached. Look for reddish/white speckles on the bark. Some types of elms will not have this on the bark.”
The bark of an elm is rough and coarse, with intersecting ridges. The color is light gray to dark greyish-brown.
To kick start you in the identification, Jason informs us of some of the common characteristics to look for. He says, “The bark of an elm is rough and coarse, with intersecting ridges. The color is light gray to dark greyish-brown. The tips of a dead elm tree will have many little finger-like branches. The next best elm tree you should look for while hunting is an elm that’s losing its bark. The bark will be slipping from the tree and missing up to half of the bark. This second year fruiting tree will produce half the amount or sometimes none, depending on the type of elm. By the 3rd fruiting year the bark will be completely gone from the elm. Expect only a few or none from these trees.”
A dead elm and a dead ash might often look very similar, both sheading bark or naked of bark. With the ash bore disease killing off a good portion of the ash trees in the Midwest these two trees can easily be misidentified from even a short distance. Jason offers this little bit of knowledge, “The recent outbreak of the Ash borer has made it tricky to distinguish between a dead elm and a dead ash tree. The dead ash tree will have diamond like bark and has less fingerlike branches throughout the tree. A dead ash tree will not fruit morels.”
He also goes on to add, “If an elm is not completely dead it rarely produces morels. Sometimes there can be just one limb alive and the tree will not fruit morels. Take note of these trees while hunting. If they completely die over the summer months they could be a hit in the spring. On average 1 out of 5 elm trees will fruit morels given the spring weather conditions are favorable for morel growth. The tree also must be in a well- drained area.”
It is believed by many mycologist the morels are a result of the root systems of trees. John Royer who hunts morels in western Pennsylvania has a really good YouTube video where he talks about how to locate and Identify Elm trees for Hunting Morel Mushrooms.
Morels and The Apple Tree
For many morel hunters, the apple tree may come in at the number two spot for most sought after trees. The Great Morel suggest seeking out the older apple trees and you will find these older apples to be a bit more productive then younger trees. It is not uncommon for old apples to get blown over in the woods and continue to live and flower, and these can often be great hiding spots for morels.
A great place to seek out old apple tree groves is along wood lines that are up against a farmer’s field. These are not true apple orchards, but you will often find these little groves of apples trees which can be a great spot for morels. Also, keep in mind the older the tree the more you may want to look around them. As with all trees, scope a 12-15 foot diameter around the tree. There are some who believe in trying to follow the root system of the tree as well. The root hunting technique may not be factual, but it is a common technique for some shroomers.
Morels and The Ash Tree
How about we now introduce the Ash tree? It is not a tree that one might seek out, but always worth a look around. As stated above the ash tree is often confused with the elm. Some morel hunters along with Jason believe most dead ash trees will not fruit morels. He adds – “…live ash trees will fruit morels on a limited basis. Not many of these trees will fruit morels, although sometimes you can find a group of them fruiting morels. On a mature ash tree, the bark is tight with a pattern of diamond-shaped ridges. A young ash has relatively smooth bark.”
If you would like additional information on the Emerald Ash Borer and the havoc it has caused on forests and woods all across America, you can start by checking out the University of Wisconsin article or checking out the Emerald Ash Borer web page.
Morels and The Tulip Poplar
The tulip poplar or the tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is also commonly sought out while foraging for morels. While it is most commonly in the south and southeast regions, it is also found in most of Midwest and Northeast states. There are several varieties of the Poplar tree and the Tulip is one of these. This tree will grow rather large and will grow very straight and tall upwards of 150’. The bark is light grey in appearance and deeply veined and separating vertically. In the southern states it flowers around April, while the flowering in the northern states does not occur until June. During the morel hunting season, the Tulip poplar will most likely not be flowering. Side note about the Tulip tree – it is the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
…if I can find a Tulip Poplar grove in a low lying area, generally near a creek or a pond, I start to keep my eyes to the ground.
Ian Blaylock from Piedmont County Georgia offers his thoughts…”Tulip Poplar – Liriodendron tulipifera is particularly widespread in this corner of the state, so if I can find a Tulip Poplar grove in a low lying area, generally near a creek or a pond, I start to keep my eyes to the ground. Admittedly, I keep my eyes to the ground anyway, Morels are but one of many varieties of mushrooms that I hunt…around here you tend to find Lycoperdon, Pleurotus, and Hericium fairly often as well during those months.”
Understanding the Fruiting
The morel structure can live and feed on basically any type of non-acidic tree root system or even on shrub or bush roots.
It is important to understand the basic mycological makeup of the morel. Jason was kind enough to offer his knowledge and understanding of the fruiting of the morel. “The morel structure lives only a few inches under the soil. The morel structure can live and feed on basically any type of non-acidic tree root system or even on shrub or bush roots. The structure can even live under decomposing logs. The morel will fruit in the spring if it has no more food to eat. Since elm trees die all at once, the entire root system can no longer feed the morel structure. In the spring when conditions are right the morel will fruit since it can no longer live and feed on the root system. The apple tree will only fruit a few morels due to the root system dying at a slow rate over several years. The ash tree will only fruit a few morels here and there due to the root system dropping a few roots to grow new ones. Sometimes a disturbed or bulldozed area will fruit morels since the food source for the morel structure has been taken.”
Morels and Burn Sites
For the morel hunters who hunt in the Pacific Northwest, most have knowledge of the “burn sites”. Burn sites are where the forest fires naturally replenish the forest. This is often considered an important phase of the eco-system of the forest and the morels know this very well! Typically it is the following year after a burn site which can bring hundreds of morel hunters out. Competition can be tough too.
Jason adds this, “Burn areas are very popular out in the Pacific Northwest. An area that has been burned is also a great place to find morels since all the trees and root systems are dead. The spring after a forest fire can fruit large numbers of morels.”
For a good resource on burn sites and morels, check out Modern Forager who really details this act of Mother Nature and educates visitors in a very understandable way.
The More You Know
It is important for all morel hunters to become knowledgeable of the woods and environment around them – the trees, the direction of the sun, the vegetation, precipitation, temperatures, and the makeup of the land around them. The more you know, the more successful you’ll be and the more morels you’ll hopefully find. Learning to identify the trees of the morel may be one of the most crucial bits of knowledge to help bring you that success.
Happy and successful hunting!
Jason Edge is the founder of MorelMasters.com and co-founder of HowToGrowMorelMushrooms.com. He has been hunting morels successfully in Wisconsin for many years. His success comes from his keen ability to spot the elm trees and find the morels. The Great Morel would like to extend gratitude to Jason for his contribution to this article. The Great Morel would also like to thank some of the kind folks at The Native Tree Society (NativeTreeSociety.org) for offering some of the images.
YouTube Video References