Tight cluster of morels

Tight cluster of morels

Morel mania seems to be spreading like—well, you might say like wildfire—across our far-north state, with Southcentral Alaska the apparent epicenter.

Strong and convincing evidence of this craze is displayed on the Facebook page “Alaska Morels and Other Mushroom Madness.” Created by Igor Pasternak and Sveta Yamin-Pasternak in spring 2020 (under the name Alaska Morel Harvest 2020), the FB group has grown to more than 5,200 members. And counting.

Much of the madness seems to be directly tied to last year’s incredible “flush” of morel mushrooms within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Those morels appeared in copious quantities following the 2019 Swan Lake Fire and hundreds (if not thousands) of Alaskans gathered huge amounts of those “burn morels.”

Before continuing, it seems a good idea to present a brief morel primer. To begin, morels and other mushrooms are the visible “fruiting bodies” (or simply “fruits”) of much larger fungal organisms that generally remain hidden while forming complex mycelial networks underground. And the process that produces mushrooms is called fruiting. Exactly where the fruits appear, and why, remains largely a mystery, like much that happens in the fungal kingdom.

For reasons that remain unclear, morels occur in two distinct circumstances. In undisturbed woodlands, the number of morels is relatively small and—to the human eye—they seem to be randomly distributed, though certain forest associations can help a morel hunter locate the mushrooms. While their numbers may be small compared to burn morels, once you discover a patch of them, they’re likely to recur there year after year.

When dedicated morel hunters discover places that are reliably fruitful from one year to the next, they prefer to keep such knowledge to themselves, much like wild blueberry pickers do. Or anglers who prize their “secret” fishing holes.

The simple truth is this: if word spread about a morel “hot spot” in undisturbed forest and large numbers of people came looking for the mushrooms, it would quickly be picked clean and the ground likely trampled, which would be harmful to the fungal network producing the fruits. Thus the rationale for secrecy, should you be so fortunate to find a productive morel patch.

Morels associated with large-scale “disturbance events” such as wildfires are, you might say, an entirely different kind of fruit. Mycologists—the scientists who study mushrooms and other fungal organisms—have found evidence that suggests different species of morels appear in burns than in undisturbed habitats, but much remains unknown.

For reasons that again are not fully understood, forest fires sometimes produce huge quantities of morels the year following a fire (if the habitat is right).

Whatever the cause, large burns may yield tons of morels, which is why they sometimes lure commercial pickers. Not only are the mushrooms present in much greater numbers, they’re also easier to see in ashy soil. The morel picking becomes less of a hunt and more of a straightforward harvest.

I’ll add here that (as any Morchella enthusiast already knows) morels are considered among the tastiest of edible wild mushrooms, in great enough demand that commercial harvesters in the U.S. and other parts of the world converge on certain locales each spring and summer to pick the distinctive fungal fruits. Fortunately, Fish and Wildlife Service officials have prohibited commercial picking in the Kenai refuge’s Swan Lake burn, a good thing for morel pickers seeking food for themselves, their families, and friends.

Another factor that makes burn picking easier: the distribution of morels is more predictable than those in undisturbed habitat. Mycologists say the evidence suggests burn morels grow most abundantly near trees, in areas where the fire was moderate to severe. (That said, last summer I found excellent picking in lightly burned parts of the Swan Lake burn, but nearby more heavily scorched areas.)

Unfortunately for burn-morel pickers, the bounty is short lived. Even where it flourishes, large-scale fruiting normally occurs only during the first, and sometimes the second, season following a fire. Again, why that’s so remains a mystery.

Which brings me back to the FB page Alaska Morels and Other Mushroom Madness (also known as AK MOMMA) and this year’s Burn Morel Watch.

Because the Swan Lake burn’s production of morels was so fantastically prolific in 2020, people who picked there last year—and many who didn’t—have been eagerly anticipating this year’s morel fruiting since late winter (if not earlier). Sure, the fruiting likely wouldn’t match last year’s fungal extravaganza. But even if it were a tenth as productive, there would be lots of morels to gather and eat.

Bunches of people have wanted to know: When will the morels appear? Has anyone been finding them yet? What’s the outlook?

The outlook, it turns out, has so far been dismal. Many people have looked in the Swan Lake burn, but few morels have revealed themselves to pickers.

People naturally want to know: how can that be?

At first more knowledgeable morel hunters pointed to the late winter and cool spring. It takes time for the ground to warm up sufficiently for morels to appear. Just be patient, anxious pickers were advised.

As the season progressed, burn morel enthusiasts started blaming the lack of rain. It’s too dry, unsuccessful pickers have moaned. We need rain!

Almost certainly that’s true. But even when—or if—some drenching rains arrive, there may still be a dearth of morels, for reasons that not even the most knowledgeable mycologists can explain. Sometimes, a burn area yields only one year’s gargantuan flush of morels and nothing more.

There’s still a chance that mid- to late-summer fruiting episodes will occur, if sufficient rain wets the burn area. But it’s just as likely that this year will be a bust.

Though the Swan Lake burn has so far disappointed morel enthusiasts, some AK MOMMA posters have described good to excellent picking in the McKinley Fire burn area, near Willow, where a forest fire raged two summers ago, the same year as the Kenai refuge fire.

And while so many burn-morel “specialists” have been vainly waiting and wishing and hoping and praying that the Swan Lake burn area will suddenly bloom with great quantities of the mushrooms, morel hunters who seek the fungal fruits in undisturbed forests have reported doing very well in parts of Southcentral and Interior Alaska.

I’ve had my own good success—exactly where I can’t say, of course—in Anchorage area woodlands and have been impressed with the FB postings of other locals who’ve also brought home large numbers of morels (with images that show the fruits of their labor).

The challenge is that morels are much harder to find in undisturbed forests, where it’s commonly said (for good reason) that they can “hide in plain sight.” Though some people might be innately gifted with the ability to easily spot morels in undisturbed forests, it usually takes time and dedication to develop an “eye” for morels. It can also help to have a mentor.

I don’t know what other local morel hunters have found, but in my experience this spring and early summer, the first flush of Anchorage-area morels has already peaked, with many of the mushrooms now beyond their prime. Some I’ve found have dried and shriveled, others have softened and decayed.

There’s some evidence of a second flush in local woodlands, stirred by late May rain showers. But now the challenge is that the forest has greened up and is growing more lush daily (even in the dryness), making it increasingly difficult to find morels among the bushes and ground-hugging plants.

For those who might still want to try hunting morels in undisturbed forest this year (or some future season), I’ll offer this bit of advice: in the Anchorage area I’ve had my best success looking in cottonwood stands on well-drained south- to southwest-facing slopes, often with patches of devil’s club in the area.

As I write these words in early June, the morels are there, though not for long. But at least they’ve fruited in good numbers, unlike the Swan Lake burn that so many have been monitoring.

Anchorage nature writer and wildlife/wilderness advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

Load comments