Here in the upper lefthand corner of the country we have to endure weeks of hearing about everyone else’s spectacular morel mushroom finds before we get a taste of our own. The flush usually begins in the southeast around Georgia in March, then spreads north and west from there, up into the Carolinas and across the lower Mississippi states of Arkansas and Missouri and into the Midwest. By the end of April the morel fruiting has usually marched up into New England and the Great Lakes region.
But here in Washington State we need to be patient. California kicks off the West Coast season and then there’s usually a stall before Oregon turns on and then Washington. I plan on mid-May to mid-June for the bulk of my morel picking, by which time most of the rest of the country has eaten their fill.
There are benefits to holding up the caboose. Our season is long. Morels in the Pacific Northwest start in the river valleys and migrate uphill, sometimes lasting through the summer at high elevations. My first morel foray is always to the most exposed locations in low-elevation river valleys on the east slope of the Cascades. I’ll find morels out in the open in direct sunlight, far from any shade trees—a habitat that would surprise an East Coast morel hunter. Look at the photo below. This is not a landscape most would associate with morels—but it’s where the early bird gets the worm.
The riparian morels seem to have a relationship with cottonwood trees. Later in May and through June I’ll go higher, looking for areas of disturbance in the mountains: ORV trails, timber harvests, roadcuts, burns, and so on. Unlike the low-elevation morels, these mountain morels seem to associate more with true firs and other conifers.
These are black morels I’m talking about, likely a complex of species. Yellow morels in some ways are even more of a mystery. The big beautiful yellows (Morchella esculenta) are familiar to Midwestern pothunters, but in the Pacific Northwest they seem to be mainly confined to localized areas west of the Cascades, particularly along the Columbia River and its tributaries. For a while now I’ve wondered whether the Great Floods during the last ice age were responsible for carrying the spores of interior yellow morels to more westerly locales. In any event, you don’t see many yellows up here in Puget Sound and most of our hunting is on the eastern slope.
Behold, a rare Puget Sound yellow! This fattie was discovered last week on the Key Peninsula in second-growth Douglas fir, a somewhat unusual habitat for the species. Many would call this Morchella crassipes but DNA sequencing suggests it’s merely a monstrous yellow. If you want to go deep into the puzzle palace of morel taxonomy, check out this page from MushroomExpert.com.
Another wrinkle in morel morphology is the so-called “landscape morel” or “mulch morel.” These are the earliest of all morels. They pop up in flower beds, beauty strips, parking medians—anywhere a commercial mulch or bed of wood-chips has been put down. Mulch morels have been known to fruit in Southern California as early as January or February. I wouldn’t advise eating these morels unless you can verify that the mulch hasn’t been treated with chemicals, as they so often are.
At the end of the day I decided to check some spots on the far side of Blewett Pass. I drove through a snowstorm past the Swauk Prairie bison herd and over the pass, where the icy grip of winter still held tight.
We’re coming into a special time of year in my neighborhood. The thought of spring morel forays gets many a mushroom hunter through the long dark season…and then hot on the heels of the morels we have the spring porcini, a Northwest specialty. The next two months will be spent madly foraging on the dry side of the mountains, a perfect place to be in spring when deep snow drifts still haunt the high country.