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Finding Morel Mushrooms in Canada

How can something that exists in the hundreds of billions be considered a rarity, and how can something so prolific be so difficult to discover? The North American morel is an enigma.

Prized as a delicacy comparable to the French truffle, the morel commands a royal ranking as the favorite American mushroom (although it really is not even a mushroom, but a fungus), more sought after than the common white button mushroom. Yet, surprisingly few of us have ever found and picked one, even though 'shroom hunting is a popular excursion for thousands of North Americans.

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Morels are, without doubt, the easiest fungus to identify in the wild, and the hardest to confuse with poisonous or toxic cousins. Their unique shape and specific growing environment make them distinctive, and one of the few mushrooms that almost all of us can eat with gastric confidence.

Their Christmas-tree shape, their distinctive ridges, and valleys, their common coloring all make the morel a unique target. But, morels have adapted an appearance and typical growing environment that confounds amateur and professional hunters alike.

Found across all of North America, the family of morels possesses a camouflage ideally suited to their early spring woodland habits. Each year, thousands of mushroom hunters seek out the delicacy, unsuccessfully. Long-time gatherers will claim that the best places to locate morels are in recent burn sites, or adjacent to decaying elm and ash.

Others will claim that these fungi are never located near evergreens. Yet, isolated varieties of morels grow in almost any setting, given the right moisture, light, and season combinations.

The claim that morels thrive in recent burn sites has staying power. With the rush of potassium nutrients from ash and the cleansing of another groundcover from these sites, morels are able, in the first year or two, to establish a firm hold on the site, briefly.

Morels that are found near downed ash and elm also receive a nutrient boost and tend to be long-term residents of those sites.

Morels' unusual patterns of ridge and valley make them difficult to spot, wherever they grow. Their early spring appearance means that they are able to hide under the cover of last year's leaf growth, in patterns of wrinkled, mottled leaf beds. While the ground is dry, the fluffy layer of identical leaf pattern makes the morel almost invisible on the forest floor.

But, immediately after a good rain, when the leaf bed, darkened by the moisture, is packed on the woodland floor, morels stand out.