North Carolina Morel Indicator Species – Things to Look for in Morel Territory!

Editor’s Note:

Good news, everyone! It’s official: morels have been found in North Carolina near Charlotte! Although things got off to a very painful and slow start due to a rather lion-like March, I think it’s safe to say that morels will be on the grow and mushroom hunters on the prowl in the coming weeks! Hopefully, our weather will cooperate and we’ll get some rain that will help the little suckers become big suckers! Also on my wish list: a few (or more!) weeks of temperatures in the 60s and low 70s, keeping the soil temps in the ideal range for morels (the mid 50s) for as long as possible!

morel mushrooms 2015
Good news, everyone! Morels have been found in the North Carolina Piedmont! Time to hit the woods, hard!

Although I did publish a series of four posts about morel mushrooms last month, I think it prudent to add some additional information about how to find these tasty little fungi, because more intel is always better when it comes to hunting for wild morels in North Carolina and other parts of the eastern United States.

If you want to learn more about North Carolina’s morel mushrooms, the earlier series should shed some light on morel habitats, species (grouped into black morels and yellow morels that grow in North Carolina), and some delicious morel mushroom recipes, I encourage you to take a gander at my earlier posts on the subject. If you have additional insights, please share your morel-wisdom in the comments!

Yours in Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

North Carolina Morel Indicator Species: Fungi, Plants, and Trees to Look Out for When You’re Morel Hunting

Morels are notoriously sneaky, to put it simply. They like to hide in plain sight, their habitats can be difficult to navigate,  and sometimes they seem to be going out of their way to be annoyingly difficult to find.

For instance, I once went on a mushroom foray of nearly 50 people with the Oregon Mycological Society, and we spent all morning searching for morels. I was a little tired that day and did not range as far as other members of the group, and I became fixated on a particular spot along a country road that just seemed right for morels. I searched the area twice over, and then decided to head back down the road for another patch of woods. Out of the corner of my eye, poking right out of a bank of soil on the roadside, I saw a little pointy cap. I whirled around and made a beeline for my prize, which turned out to be just one morel in a patch of several individuals! I was super-excited, needless to say, and re-searched the area yet again, only to find that I had overlooked several more small patches of morels!

A little while later, the group came together for lunch and a discussion of the other mushrooms we’d found that day. Out of the whole group, I was at this point the only person who’d found morels, which made me feel incredibly vainglorious. However, the rest of the crew’s efforts were not squandered: there were a number of amazing specimens, including the elfin saddle (Helvella vespertina), several choice and giant spring king porcini (Boletus rex-veris), and a number of other interesting fungi as well that our mushroom identification expert waxed rhetorical about while we enjoyed lunch.

This devil's urn fungus is a great morel mushroom indicator species. Photo by Alan Cressler. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported.
This devil’s urn fungus is a great morel mushroom indicator species. Photo by Alan Cressler. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported.

Afterwards, more than half of the group went home, giving up on the morels for the afternoon. A few of us remained, and not 10 minutes after most of the other cars rolled out, we discovered a massive patch of morel mushrooms not 10 yards from where the entire group had eaten lunch, completely oblivious to the fact that our elusive prey was so close by.

What to Look for When Searching for Morels

Morel hunting is a great pastime for North Carolina nature lovers, and there are a few species of plants, trees, and other fungi that tell you that you’re in the right sort of habitat. This list is not exhaustive, of course, but hopefully it will help!

Devil’s Urn Fungus, Urnula Craterium

The devil’s urn fungus (Urnula craterium) is a cup fungus that parasitizes living hardwood trees and decomposes dead wood, particularly oak. The fruiting body of this fungus looks like a small cup or goblet, and it gets to be up to a couple inches of width and depth (although it is sometimes much smaller). Devil’s urn is the #1 species I look for when I am trying to determine if the habitat I am scouting in is right for morels, because it favors the same fruiting conditions (temperature and moisture levels). Devil’s urn frequently appears on downed branches and trees, and is quite pretty to look at up close. The flesh of devil’s urn is a little rubbery and a little felty, and it usually grows in small clusters of several individuals. The devil’s urn favors places that have the appropriate “squish factor” for morels, and I commonly see them in slight depressions in the forest floor where there is ample moisture. If you find this fungus it is not a certainty that you will also find morels, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction!

jack in the pulpit
Jack in the pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum. This phase of the plant’s growth coincides with morel mushroom season! Photo by Fritz Folh Reynolds. Photo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported.

Jack in the Pulpit, Arisaema Triphyllum 

Another morel mushroom indicator species is the beautiful Jack in the pulpit plant (Arisaema triphyllum). This interesting little perennial, herbaceous plant grows in moist forests and is plentiful in North Carolina’s hardwood forests. Jack in the pulpit gets its common name from the appearance of the emerging flower, which looks a little like a green dude standing in a pulpit with a hood over his head.

When the morel mushrooms are out, Jack in the pulpit is entirely green; later in its lifecycle it develops clusters of reddish berries. This plant tends to favor moist, semi-shady areas that are also ideal for morels, so when you see it, there is a decent chance that you’re near some morel mushrooms, or at least are in an area where morel mycelium would thrive! Pro tip: learn how to identify this plant during all phases of its lifecycle and make a mental note anytime you see it, so you can come back to the spot next spring! Take a look at the picture to see the form that Jack takes when he’s sharing the forest with morel mushrooms!

Brain Fungus, Gyromitra caroliniana

Although toxic, the brain fungus, Gyromitra caroliniana, is a beautiful mushroom to behold, and it also shares habitat with morel mushrooms! Gyromitra caroliniana and its cousins, Gyromitra gigas and Gyromitra esculenta, are characterized by warped and folded caps, hollow stems, and a somewhat rubbery-feeling flesh. Although Gyromitra often appear a couple weeks before the first morels start to pop up, finding Gyromitra is generally a good sign when you’re trying to evaluate a possible morel spot!

Gyromitra esculenta
One species of brain fungus, Gyromitra esculenta. This toxic mushroom is a good morel indicator! Photo by Fréderic Coune. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported.

Gyromitra can sometimes be found side by side with morels, although in my experience the brain fungus does a bit better in cool weather than the true morels. For more information on the intriguing Gyromitra mushrooms, including some notes on their toxicity and distribution, check out this post from a couple months ago.

Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans

Unfortunately for those who are allergic, poison ivy is another species that tends to occupy the same bits of nature as morel mushrooms. During the season when morels are active, poison ivy goes through an explosion of growth, and you can occasionally find morels tucked into huge patches of the stuff. Although poison ivy is a lot more widely distributed than morels, they do tend to hang together in some habitats.

As a side note, morels are not the only delicious wild edible mushrooms that tend to grow in and around poison ivy. One of the finest specimens of chicken of the woods that I ever found was covered in the stuff. Luckily for me, when I was young I got a case of poison oak that was beyond terrible, and ever since then I’ve largely been unaffected by poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac. Even though I rarely get more than a small, fleeting rash when I handle these plants, I used to be extremely susceptible to them, and take pains to be careful when mushroom hunting around these plants, and I encourage you to do the same!

Trees, Trees, Treeeeeees!

More than anything else, you need to pay attention to certain species of trees if you hope to find morel mushrooms, because the morels that grow in North Carolina and other eastern states are believed to be at least partially mycorrhizal, meaning that they partner with a tree and share resources with it. Here is a brief list of the main trees you should be on the lookout for if you’re hunting for morel mushrooms in North Carolina:

  • White and green ash
  • Hickory
  • Tulip poplar
  • American elm (especially dying elm trees)
  • Apple

Concluding Thoughts on Morel Habitats

One thing that I try hard to do when I find morels is not just remember the spot I found them, but also to remember everything I can about the entire ecosystem so that when I see a similar place in the future, I will recognize it. The lay of the land, distribution of trees, sources of water, amount of sunshine, and even the orientation of the place (morels seem to enjoy growing on south-facing slopes for whatever reason) are all important.

So, the next time you find a morel, contain your excitement for a minute and look around you! Smell the air, feel the earth, study the trees above you and the little plants on the ground below you. The more you practice studying mushroom habitats, the more you will ultimately learn about how to scout successful hunting grounds in the future! One of my mentors, who is quite the mushroom hound, does not even have to get out of his vehicle most of the time when he’s looking for likely morel spots; he simply stops the van, scans the landscape, peeks at his GPS, and either hops out for a closer look or keeps on truckin’!

Happy morel season, everyone! I’m outta here for a long foray weekend!


10 thoughts on “North Carolina Morel Indicator Species – Things to Look for in Morel Territory!”

  1. I know elm trees are a primary indicator in other states, but has anyone had the same experience here in North Carolina? I’ve never come across a stand of elms that I’ve found them under.

    1. Hi there, thanks for commenting! Elm is what I would consider a “secondary indicator” in North Carolina; I have found M. diminutiva under elm, but it is possible it was growing with other trees nearby and not the elm itself. I have heard reports of finding M. esculentoides under stands of dying elm, much like in the midwest, but have not experienced that personally. I always look for trees in the following order:
      -Tulip poplar
      -Ash
      -Hickory
      -Elm

      On a side note, M. virginiana usually seems to come up where there is downed wood nearby; I am not sure why, but EVERY time I find this rather large yellow morel, it is right next to a downed branch of a tulip poplar or something similar. Maybe the compression of the dead wood helps with moisture retention, and maybe it’s a food source. Can’t say for sure why, but it’s something I see a lot!

  2. Love this blog! I’m a rookie hunter in Greensboro. Been out hunting for Morels since mid-March after seeing a documentary on Japanese foragers. I’ve found all kinds of weird stuff but nothing edible. Any tips on learning my trees? They all look hard and woody to me! I’ve learned to avoid pine and look around the wider, pointier leaves, but I’ve got nada.

    1. After looking up those trees I’ve definitely seen them hunting. Could I be doing something else wrong? Do they grow on steep hills and banks? Is it true being close to the creeks is good? How come the rain hasn’t helped much so far in my observation? Thanks again you are a godsend!

      1. First of all, morels are tricky because just because you’re in a morel-friendly area does not mean that you will find morels! In my experience, it takes a lot of patience to find a few patches, even if you hunt in a number of areas that are outstanding morel habitat. They tend to grow on south-facing slopes, but in my experience they do much better in wet creek bottoms that have a good number of low-lying plants, a little bit of grass, dappled sunlight, and the right trees. Also, for some reason I find that yellow morels grow right next to downed branches; this might be because they grow in association with the trees but also get some nutrition or something from the downed wood. Again, the main issue with morels is not to get discouraged; you may be in the exact right habitat and find nada, because they’re not as widespread as they could be…once you find a patch, come back year after year and guard the secret with your life! If you want to see the kind of ground cover that looks just right for morels, check the morel pictures that are currently on the North Carolina Mushroom Mushroom FB group page; the backgrounds show a lot of the little plants you will find in morel habitat.

    2. Well Zack, the best way to learn the trees you want for morels is, in my experience, to get a sense of what the bark and young leaves look like. For ash trees, the giveaway is that the branches grow symmetrically, meaning that you would see branches directly opposite one another, as opposed to alternating. Also, older ash trees tend to have diamond-patterned bark. Finally, the leaves themselves are a compound leaf with six or so separate “leaves” that all grow together; again these leaves are opposing one another. The leaves themselves are simply shaped, just a pointed oval really (sorry I am sure that there is a tree-science way to describe this, but I don’t know the exact words! Basically, you want 6 “leaves” that are actually just one growth, and the shape is simple rather than being fingered like an oak leaf).

      As for tulip poplars, they’re even easier than ash; basically, the leaves look like little tulips! Also, they tend to be very, very straight trunked, and the foliage is high up. The bark tends to be a bit yellowish, though it can be gray as well. The bark of tulip poplars has a regular, shallow pattern. Mostly, you want to look for shotgun-straight trunks and tulip-shaped leaves. Right now, the color is a light, vibrant green and those little tulip leaves are about the size of your thumb.

      Elm is a little trickier because there are several varieties, but shaggy-barked trees are usually one kind of elm or another. Hickory is the same. For me, hickory is easiest to identify by the remains of nuts on the ground, and also hickories have the simple, six-leaf growth pattern that ash has. Hope this helps, I am from the west coast and so I am very much still learning my North Carolina trees!

      1. That was a huge help! Thanks. Do you have any spots left for your guided foray on the 18th? I would really like to come.

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