Morel mushrooms

Southeast Iowa is at the peak of a typical morel mushroom season. Wapello County Conservation Board Director Rick Tebbs says the season typically runs from late April through early May. He noted this year's cool temperatures could extend that, and this week's rains should benefit the crop.

OTTUMWA — While the recent rains have wreaked havoc on sports schedules, it’s good news for mushroom hunters.

“All the rain we’ve been getting this week will definitely help more of them [morels] to show up,” said Rick Tebbs, director of the Wapello County Conservation Board. “With this rain, it should be making conditions a little better to find them.”

The rains are timely, too. Tebbs said the typical span of morel hunting runs from late April to early May. “It all depends on when the ground warms up and if we get enough moisture. We’ve been a bit cool this year, so the season may run a bit longer,” Tebbs said.

Location is key to mushroom hunting as well, he said. Earlier in the season, it’s best to explore south-facing hillsides; the ground there warms up earlier due to the way the sun hits them, Tebbs said. Later in the season, hunters are advised to check the north-facing hill sides, he said.

Timber is important, too. “You typically find them along timber edges with dead and dying trees,” Tebbs explained. “The spore the morel feeds on is often on decaying and trees that have died.”

You also want to make sure the trees haven’t been dead too long, he added. “You want a tree that’s died in the last couple of years. A tree that’s been dead eight or 10 years is probably too old” to produce morels.

Although morels aren’t the only type of mushroom that can be “hunted,” Tebbs said they tend to be what’s popular in southeast Iowa.

“It’s an activity that’s popular in the Midwest because of the tree species we have or used to have,” he said. “Because of our hardwood timber forest, people were more likely to find them.”

He thinks that, though the population of some of the morel-friendly trees have declined, people continue to hunt as a tradition.

“People grew up with them. There was a lot of habitat and timber. There were more people hunting them and there’s a tradition of doing it,” Tebbs said.

For those looking to go out on the hunt, Tebbs had some advice:

• Know what you’re looking for, and beware of “false morels.” These mushrooms look similar but have a long white stem with a little cap. False morels have stems that take up two-thirds to three-fourths of the mushroom. The stem of a true morel will be about a quarter of the mushroom with the cap making up the rest. And, he said, it’s important that with all mushrooms, there’s a risk of having a reaction.

• Use a mesh bag to carry the mushrooms to allow for air flow. They don’t store well in plastic, and plastic bags tear easily. If storing in the fridge for later use, store in a paper bag.

• Tebbs advisid cutting the mushroom in half before preparing: “Sometimes there’s bugs in them.” He also said most people like to soak them in salt water to kill bacteria.

• Morels can be frozen, but they don’t freeze well fresh, he said, as they can break down that way. They can be frozen if dried first, and he said some like to bread and fry them before freezing. He said not to freeze more than two or three months.

• If you’re new to the game, you may have to find your own spot. People don’t like to share their areas, he sad. Public wooded areas make good hunting grounds, including the Pioneer Ridge Nature Center.

Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's magazine editor, leading production of "Ottumwa Life," the award-winning "Business People" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.