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Morels are a springtime delicacy — if you know where to look

Morels growing near a dying elm tree in southeastern Ohio.
Andrea Moore
Morels growing near a dying elm tree in southeastern Ohio.

Iowans feast on morel mushrooms in the spring — but they'll never tell you where they found them.

As Iowa Department of Natural Resources forester Mark Vitosh steps softly through the forest, glancing skyward and then back to the ground, pushing away plant debris with a stick, he's got eyes for only one thing.

"I'm looking for a sponge," he told host Charity Nebbe on IPR's Talk of Iowa.

The texture is the distinctive characteristic of a morel mushroom: hollow, gray or yellow fungi that many mushroom hunters around the nation enjoy eating fried in a pan with some butter — that is, if they can find them.

The mushrooms are not only rare, popping up only in the springtime in very particular conditions — hunting them is also extremely competitive. Many Iowans have spots they know to visit every year. Some locations are kept a secret for generations. Some stalk through the forests of friends who own private land, foraging for the precious fungi all season.

There are many mushroom hunters out there, though, so it's vital to be quick.

"Sometimes, they beat you," Vitosh said, warning of mushroom hunters who get to the precious spots early, or hunters who wander onto private land without permission.

Walking around an undisclosed wooded area in northeastern Johnson County, Vitosh is quick to notice elm trees — particularly those that have recently died. The conditions around the fallen tree are perfect for morels to sprout, but the longer an elm has been deceased, the lower the chances of finding any fungi.

The Iowa DNR calls dead elms "morel magnets." The perfect elm — one that is dying or has died within the last year — will still have most of its bark, but little to no remaining leaves, according to the DNR website. The symbiotic relationship between an elm and a morel mushroom means that when the mushroom connects with the tree's roots, it receives vital nutrients from the tree while also supplying nitrogen and other minerals to promote growth.

Where — and when — to hunt

A timber with a large diversity of different trees; the southern side of a hill that's not too dry — morels can pop up in a variety of different places if the conditions are juuuust right. The signal to start hunting varies from person to person. Some wait until the oak leaves are "the size of a mouse's ear." Vitosh said he starts hunting as soon as his crab apple starts blooming.

"Usually if there's no vegetation, it's too early to hunt mushrooms," he said.

Vitosh has been hunting morels for the past few decades. He became hooked on the delicacies thanks to his grandmother, who would get them from a friend and cook them up in some butter for the family to enjoy.

"I just always really liked them," he said.

Vitosh's father-in-law also hunted and cooked the mushrooms, and Vitosh would always find a way to be around when the time came to feast. Now that his father-in-law is no longer agile enough to go out into the woods to hunt, Vitosh returns the favor every spring by sending him some of his findings.

It's always a lucky day when I can walk in the woods.
Mark Vitosh, DNR forester

Once Vitosh finds the perfect elm, he'll start his search about 10 to 15 feet way from its trunk, slowly circling his way in. He says it's a mistake to start searching right up at the trunk. Since the tree's roots can branch out so far underground, morels can pop up within a large radius.

It takes some patience, but that doesn't dull Vitosh's excitement.

"It's kind of like fishing: you gotta wait 'til they bite," he explained. "They always say you find the first mushroom and it will usually give up the rest... it's just a matter of giving it some time and just giving it a deep look."

Vitosh has several favorite spots. He hunts leisurely, enjoying the walk in the woods just as much as he does actually finding a batch of mushrooms. For him, it's a mental break from the world, and an enjoyable one, even on days his search isn't fruitful — or rather, fungi-ful.

"It's always a lucky day when I can walk in the woods," he said. "It doesn't take much to make you happy when you're out mushroom hunting."

If he does find some mushrooms, he'll fry them in a pan and eat them atop a Ritz cracker (ideally, the roasted vegetable variety.)

"I don't use a lot of butter in my diet, but during mushroom season I do," he joked.

What he doesn't eat, he bags up and gives away to friends.

"I've got four or five people that I know really appreciate them, so if I can get one or two plates and can also give them a bag or two throughout the season, that's a great season for me," he said.

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Gardening Horticulture
Josie Fischels is IPR's Arts & Culture Reporter, with expertise in performance art, visual art and Iowa Life. She's covered local and statewide arts, news and lifestyle features for The Daily Iowan, The Denver Post, NPR and currently for IPR. Fischels is a University of Iowa graduate.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Matthew was a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa