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The Morel Of The Story: Finding Fungi In The Mountain West

When I was little, my dad and I would walk behind our house in west-central Montana and stare at the ground. And then walk. Stare. Walk. Stare. We'd do this for hours, searching for that tasty, edible and highly prized morel mushroom.

And now I'm doing that again in rainy southern Idaho, with someone else.

"I know I'm in a good area because I've actually found them here before," says Krista Willmorth.

Willmorth, who runs a blog called The FunGal Forager, is taking me along to look for new morel hunting grounds. Of course, she does have her own go-to spots, but they're sacred. Most mushroom foragers, like big game hunters, keep their favorite grounds to themselves.

Credit Madelyn Beck / Mountain West News Bureau
Krista Willmorth walks into the woods, looking for morel mushrooms.

"And that's with good reason," she says. "When they don't have a lot of experience, many times what will happen is they'll just go and just take everything that's there. And if that was one of your spots that you had found, it could not be very fun."

But finding new morel hotspots is good practice for beginning foragers anyway, Willmorth said. They have to learn the forest they want to hunt in. And even someone's most reliable spot can leave you empty-handed.

"That's why they call it mushroom hunting, not mushroom finding," she says.

The most predictable places to find morels is where the ground is disturbed, like in logging areas or after wildfires. After especially big burns, some public lands agencies even offer permits for commercial mushroom hunters. 

"Last time we offered commercial mushroom picking permits was in 2017 after the Pioneer Fire, which was almost 200,000 acres," says Venetia Gempler with the Boise National Forest, which posts burn maps to assist foragers. 

In years after quiet fire seasons, like this year, the forest is just open to casual foragers like me who don't need a permit.

"Part of the regulations is to pick no more than five gallons at a time with no more than 10 gallons of mushrooms in their possession," Gempler says.

But as Willmorth and I walk around without any morels, I'm having a hard time even imagining what that would look like. 

It's less hard to imagine for chef-turned-commercial mushroom picker Chris Florence. He talked to me in mid May, right before he headed up to Alaska. Wildfires there covered a lot of ground last year – more than 2.5 million acres.

Florence wishes the Forest Service understood mushroom seasons better and permitted more commercial hunting. But that kind of hunting is one of the many, many controversies within the fungi community. Regardless of people’s opinions, he says picking mushrooms doesn’t hurt the fungus, though. 

"The thing that pops up above ground that you pick is like the apple on a tree and you don't kill apple trees by picking all the apples off of them," Florence says.

My hunting partner Willmorth agrees. 

"You can think of it as the fruit of a huge organism that's underground," she says. "So the mycelium has spread around much, much farther than we can see, and just when the conditions are right, they will send up a fruiting body. And that's a way to reproduce. They'll be dispersing their spores that way.”

Credit Madelyn Beck / Mountain West News Bureau
Willmorth holds up a fungus commonly known as a "wood ear."

But she still leaves some little ones, or a few for other hunters. She'll even leave some just to live out their life cycle and play their role in nature. Some say you should leave a few to release more spores, but Willmorth says it’s important to note that "if you're picking a mature mushroom, by the time you're finding it, it's been releasing billions of spores already."

For Willmorth, being out in the forest isn't just about morel hunting. It's about finding all kinds of stuff and learning about it – like the fireweed she identifies, which she says makes a nice tea. Or the Arnica montana flower she points out, which she says can be made into a salve that can ease muscles or bruising.

"Sometimes you see things like this and wonder, 'How did I never notice these kinds of things before?” she says.

But she tells me foragers have to be careful. They have to know where they're going, have emergency backup supplies (including spare tires), and if you plan on eating something, check with experts if you're not absolutely sure you have the right thing.

"Be 100% positive of anything you put in your mouth," she says.

In stressful times, Willmorth says foraging really forces you to put on your mushroom goggles and tune out the world. It's something mushroom hunters have to practice every season. 

"If your mind is wandering and you're thinking of, worrying about the future, thinking about other things, you're not really looking," she says.

Credit Madelyn Beck / Mountain West News Bureau

And when you're in that zone, it's amazing what you find. 

Willmorth sings out with our first find.

“Aaaaah!...See, even today I make the same sound,” she says. 

And it wasn’t the last one we found. We'd go on to find a dozen more.

At one point, I point to little group of them all in a line.

“Happy little troopers,” Willmorth says lovingly, swooping down to pick them. 

Back at home, I prepare my meal. My family used to put them in spaghetti sauce (sorry culinary masters), but for these ones, I decided to saute them for a nice omelette.

And it tastes, well, pretty darn great. 

Find reporter Madelyn Beck on Twitter @MadelynBeck8

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.