Missouri mushroom foraging season is here. How can you find the prized morel?

Sara Karnes
Springfield News-Leader

Despite living in the Ozarks going on two decades, Dan Liles still considers himself new to the area, mainly because he hasn’t found a good morel patch.

“People take their morel locations to the grave with them,” Liles said, joking. “They’ll turn their mother in before they give up their morel sites.”

Liles was just a “city guy” from Kentucky when he moved to Missouri, with no knowledge of the fungi that causes such a stir in the region. Liles now works as an administrative assistant at Springfield Conservation Nature Center, and he said he jumped on the mushroom train for the added health benefits of eating them.

Morels are found on the ground in a variety of habitats, including moist woodlands and in river bottoms.

The mushroom hunting season usually starts when morel mushrooms, part of the morchella species, sprout. There are at least three species of morels in the state, and all are hollow-stemmed mushrooms that grow from the ground in the spring, according to Missouri Department of Conservation.

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the mycelium, Liles said. They live along with trees. If you come upon a group of four trees and one has a limb sticking farther out, that may be the one to check for morels, Liles said.

“(The tree) sent trauma out and its roots are saying, ‘Send me more stuff because I need to survive. I need more help,’” Liles said. “Those signals go to the mycelium and the mycelium goes, ‘Now wait a minute, I might be losing my host. I need to reproduce.’”

Wild morel mushrooms typically begin appearing in the Ozarks in early April, when spring rains and warming weather make them sprout from the ground

Tips for morel hunting

When going on a morel hunt, it’s important to bring along a stick and a basket, preferably a woven one.

“It’s a good thing to take a stick with you if you’re going to go digging in the leaves in early spring,” Liles said. “You don’t know what’s under the leaves. I’ve seen many pictures of morel mushrooms protected by copperheads.”

Another epic morel season likely, thanks to earliest spring in 124 years

“If you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone. Just don’t step on them,” Liles said. “I always wear my big, knee-high boots.”

The trick to finding morels is to locate a patch before someone else has, either human or animal.

“That’s the tough thing,” Liles said. “You've got to find them before the deer and raccoons as well."

Once you’re out and spot a morel, the first thing you want to do is stop, he said.

Morels are found on the ground in a variety of habitats, including moist woodlands and in river bottoms.

“If there’s one, there’s going to be more, and if you run straight to that one, chances are you’re going to stomp some others,” Liles said. “Take a good look when you see that one because there very well could be more in the area.”

Liles carries a knife to slice a morel off from the stem near the base before putting it in his basket. This keeps a significant amount of dirt out of the carrier. Others may pinch it off with their fingers or gab the whole thing, but that may bring a whole lot of soil with it.

“Water and mushrooms don’t mix, so you’ll have to use a brush to clean them,” Liles said. “Some people will put their morels in salt water to kill the bugs.”

“Protein never hurt anybody, but I can’t say that,” Liles said with a laugh. “I cook my morels with pepper, and you don’t know if any other bugs are in there.”

Never use a plastic bag to carry your morels

Carrying morels in a woven basket with holes may mean extra spores get sprinkled along your walk, and it is important to remember one thing: Never use a plastic bag to store your found fungi. 

“You don’t want to leave them in a plastic grocery bag because they will sweat and disintegrate,” Liles warned. “They’ll turn to goo real quickly.”

As long as conditions are right with the soil temperature hitting a steady 55 degrees and enough moisture, mushrooms will come up.

Many folks may say that they only find morel mushrooms under cottonwoods, sycamore, ash and others.

“Chances are, those people are only looking under those trees,” Liles said.

As long as conditions are right with the soil temperature hitting a steady 55 degrees and enough moisture, mushrooms will come up.

“If you get a couple of good, warm days and then the mushrooms start to pop out and everything’s doing really good, but then it dries out for a week, your morel mushroom season is about over,” Liles said.

The best place to start is to just go outside.

“That’s the fun of it all, and if you find a good mess of morels, all the better,” Liles said.

MDC shared several tips to know in a "Morel Madness" post, including:

  • Go to workshops and forays. Join a mushroom club. You’ll see a lot of mushrooms and learn about identifying features. Experts will help with your questions and recommend field guides and other resources.
  • Collect and identify what you think is the same species repeatedly. Some mushrooms change appearance dramatically as they mature or even in different seasons.
  • Show your finds to experts.
  • Use multiple field guides. One picture is not enough Read the descriptions carefully.

Sara Karnes is an Outdoors Reporter with the Springfield News-Leader. Follow along with her adventures on Twitter and Instagram @Sara_Karnes. Got a story to tell? Email her at skarnes@springfi.gannett.com.