Foraging Yellow Morels in the Pacific Northwest: A Guide to Finding Riparian Morels!

Foraging Yellow Morels in the Pacific Northwest: A Guide to Finding Riparian Morels!

 

Disclaimer: Mushroom hunting is not a game. Do not eat any wild mushroom that has not been 100% positively identified as edible by someone who knows enough to make that decision. Morel mushrooms are toxic raw. A small portion of the population has intolerances to morels even when thoroughly cooked. All wild mushrooms should be cooked thoroughly and eaten in very small quantity the first time, to make sure that you don’t have an intolerance to them!
Yellow Morels in a line from young to old
Life cycle of Morchella americana. It doesn’t actually turn into a “yellow” morel until quite mature!

 

Yellow Morels growing in fire moss near horsetail and blackberries
M. americana fruiting in fire moss along the Columbia river. Note the horsetail and blackberries.

Hello there, fellow forager! My name is Adam, and I’m so glad you’re here! I want to sincerely and heartily welcome you to my little series of mushroom blogs, please make yourself at home! There’s no point beating around the proverbial bush, here: this year is shaping up to be a morel season for the record-books! This past winter’s rains were significant and have continued into a mild spring that hasn’t suffered from weeks of drought like the previous year, nor any hard spring frosts. All that mycelial energy from the mushrooms that *didn’t* grow last year seems to have been put toward making fruiting bodies *this* year! As someone who personally spent years trying and failing to find Morchella, I know fully the frustration that some of you are feeling right now! Don’t give up: the weather right now is incredibly conducive for fungal growth, the season is still early, and I’m about to give you as much help as I can to get some morels in your basket! Today we’ll be focusing on Morchella americana, some of the earliest “true” morels to fruit in the year! While these fungi do occur all over the USA in a few different environments, we’re going to be focusing on the Riparian Morels that associate with riverbeds, sandy soil and hardwood trees. Let’s take a closer look at Morchella americana: the “American Yellow Morel”!

What to Look For!

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, locating it is going to cause some serious issues! Let’s take a quick look at the physical characteristics of M. americana before attacking the subject of how to find it!

Stem/Stipe:

  • 1”-5” long, 1”-2.5” thick

  • Off-white, turning darker with age

  • Attaches to the very base of the stem

  • Completely Hollow, although it may fold or wrinkle on itself, especially at the base

  • More or less equal in diameter, but often flared and pinched/wrinkled at the base

Large Yellow Morel In Hand
Classic shape and color of a mature but still-prime yellow morel. Photo credit: Susan Griswold
Two Yellow Morels With Brown Coloration
Browning is somewhat unusual for yellow morels, but it does happen.

Cap:

  • 1.5”-6” tall, 1”-3” wide

  • Honeycomb texture, irregular pits *not vertical ridges like M. importuna*

  • Hollow interior, connects to stipe at the very base

  • Dark grey when young, becoming yellow/tan with age

  • Starts somewhat conical and becomes more egg-shaped and irregular with maturity

  • Sometimes discoloring red/brown with age or weather (see photo)

Finding Yellow Morels: Tips for Hunting River Morels!

Landscape Morel, Dead Nettle
Yes, it’s M. importuna, but they’re fruiting in the same environments right now and this is a decent photo of Purple Deadnettle so I’m including it. :)

It’s difficult for me to put this humbly, but one of the first pieces of advice I’m going to give you is to read my other blogs. There’s a ton of information in them you can use that I can’t put here for the sake of length and focus! This is morel season: use every advantage you can. Verpa species cover almost the exact same terrain slightly earlier in the season, and I cover them in detail in my Early Morels blog. There’s a wealth of information in my 10 Morel Hunting Tips, and since Landscape Morels are fruiting right alongside Yellow Morels right now, you don’t want to miss my piece on Finding Landscape Morels!

To start, let’s go over some flora and fungi that our yellow morels are known to associate with, or at least commonly grow nearby!

Peziza and Yellow Morel
A baby yellow morel fruiting alongside a mature Peziza species
  • Tree Associations: Hardwood trees along the banks of rivers, especially Ash and Cottonwood. Most of my yellow morel finds are within a stone’s throw of a Cottonwood tree, in leaf litter or grass!

  • Peziza: These cup fungi, while perhaps not directly related to the growth of Morels, are highly associated with their environments and timing throughout the season. If cup fungus are prolific in an area, it’s possible to have potential for Morels (or very soon!) If an area is utterly devoid of any cup fungus, Morchella is less likely. (See Photo!)

  • Horsetail: M. americana love to snuggle in at the base of these reeds! If you see a large open area with horsetail and leaf litter: get in there, get low and take a good look!

  • Blackberries: It’s likely just the fact that blackberry bushes keep other pickers from walking into them like an idiot, but I find a heavy association with thick blackberry bushes and yellow morels! It’s at least worth peering into a thicket of blackberries from the outside to see if there *is* anything worth crawling in for!

  • Purple Deadnettle: This edible plant commonly grows side-by-side with M. americana (and M. importuna, like the photo shows!)

  • Stinging Nettle: Keep your eyes peeled for this painful pricker while you’re out there! While wading through fields of stinging nettle isn’t everyone cup of tea, I know people that do very well by gearing up and doing just that!

  • Oyster Mushrooms: These mushrooms enjoy the substrate of the hardwoods that you should be surrounding yourself with, and often fruit in response to the same spring rains that trigger the morel season! Keep your eyes peeled for them while you’re hunting morels: they’re edible and delicious!

Now that we know what commonly grows around them, let’s talk about where to find Yellow morels!

Tiny Yellow Morel and fingertip

Boop! Baby M. americana.

  • Kelley Point Park, Oregon: Yes, I’m breaking one of the unspoken rules of Morel hunting and telling you exactly where they are. If you live anywhere near Portland, OR, this spot is worth taking a look. Keep in mind that this area is fairly well known already, gets hit by commercial pickers, and has also purportedly been the dumping ground for years of unknown chemicals from the nearby industrial zones. Eat from there at your own risk. (Plenty of people do, and I know of nobody getting sick.) That being said: it can give you an excellent idea of the exact type of ground that M. americana grow in! You can use the visual cues like leaf litter, types of brush, concurrent fungi species and more to plot your next move! Find public land along the river that is similar to Kelley Point Park, or just go to the park if you want to. You are welcome.

  • Use OnX Hunt App to Find Public Land: I speak about OnX Hunt in almost every one of my blogs for a reason: it is an invaluable tool for any serious forager. In this particular case, you want to use OnX Hunt to see what the Cottonwood trees in Kelley Point Park look like from an aerial view, then expand your map and try to find similar looking trees along the river in either direction that are on land owned by the public. This is the strategy I use, to some degree, to find many of my best spots. No, I am not a paid endorser for OnX Hunt. Yet.

  • The Trees Along the Riverbank: I can’t speak for every river in the Pacific Northwest, but I can tell you that both the Willamette and Columbia rivers produce Morchella americana for very long stretches, including in many public areas/parks. Disc golf courses along the river are known to be excellent areas for M. americana. Walk the beach along these rivers where you can, searching for decent places to enter into the Cottonwoods on the bank. Anywhere from the very edge to about 150’+ inside that tree line is a great place to look!

  • Where Other Pickers Won’t Go: I’m not suggesting that you storm off into the blackberry bushes at random, but: if you’re in an area that you know produces, it can sometimes pay to go that extra mile. Blackberry bushes and Stinging Nettle in no way inhibit the growth of Morchella, but they absolutely inhibit the ability of humans to forage. Gear up and push in to find the honey-holes that nobody else has dared to find! (See Photo!)

Large landscape morel mushroom and basket of morels
M. importuna in hand, with some M. americana in the background. Note the heavy coat and thick gloves. Photo credit Keneke Carson
  • Don’t Neglect the Roadside: Very few foragers want to be seen by others while they’re out picking morels, that’s just a fact. This leads to an interesting phenomenon that spreads to other mushroom foraging as well: there’s a tendency to get off the road and out of eyesight as soon as possible. This can often lead to a strip of land on either side of a road that is basically untouched in areas, as people take the easy paths into the woods and then slow down and spread out once they’re inside and out of view from cars! So: if you don’t mind being seen / people knowing about your spot, or you’re really good at flattening yourself to the ground when cars go by… take advantage of the strip of land that parallels the road on either side.

  • The Base of Damaged/Burnt Trees: Yellow morels, like many morels species, sometimes thrive and fruit prolifically near dead and dying trees. No, I cannot explain the exact science behind it, and neither can the scientists, but the important part is that it happens, and it makes every accessible damaged tree you can get to worth a look. As an added bonus, M. importuna frequents the same habitat, and enjoys the same injured/dying trees! They can sometimes be found fruiting side by side.

  • The Base of Plants/Along Downed Logs: Morels take advantage of the weakened soil where other plants have pushed through, and can often be found directly at the base of Horsetail reeds or Blackberry vines! They also enjoy the shade and moisture of downed logs, so be sure to thoroughly check along each side, right where the log meets the ground!

A Few More Tips!

5 young yellow morels in hand
Shamelessly beautiful Morchella americana.
  • If you find one, STOP: You’re probably already stepping on another one. You may think I’m joking, but this has happened to me three times this year already! Morchella like to grow in groups, but also randomly scattered. It is a fairly rare occurrence to find a lone Morel! There are generally more right nearby waiting to be found if you tilt your head, or sometimes just by being patient in the exact same spot for a minute or two! Even hours into a day of picking when my eyes are fully adjusted and spotting morels 20’ away, I’ll *still* often be shocked by one that I’ve almost stepped on, and only saw when I stopped moving entirely for some reason or other! Stop, get low, look across the distance (as the brush allows), and don’t forget to look right down at your feet!

  • Remember to Have Fun: Bring a friend, or a dog, or whatever makes you happy! Try to work some other springtime edibles into your day! Purple deadnettle, big leaf maple blossoms, oyster mushrooms and Verpa are all out there right now, just to name a few! (Properly identify ANY wild edible you intend to eat!) If you can manage to not make finding morels be the only purpose of your outdoor adventure, you’re much more likely to avoid burnout and have that eventual payoff!

  • Thick Leaf Litter: 1-2” of leaf litter helps regulate ground temperatures and keep moisture in, providing ideal conditions for morels to flourish. Fortunately, they usually work their way to an opening before fruiting, and don’t often make “shrumps” like many other mushrooms.

“I Like Mushrooms More Than People” T-Shirts now available alongside the rest of our Mushroom Apparel!

  • Travel in Style: Announce your passion for foraging to the world with these incredible “Foraging Addict” T-Shirts! All original art by my wife, Suzi McCrae! If you do end up making the wise decision to purchase any of her amazing Mushroom Stickers or perhaps a Hardcover Mushroom Journal, please feel free to take 15% off by using the discount code “MUSHLOVE” at checkout!

  • Use Different Angles: Especially when you’re in ground that you know produces: after you’ve taken a good look at everything from down low in your position, *carefully* move a few steps, get low again and look closely across the ground for a minute or two. Look for the tips peeking out of the grass, as it is often a race between grass and morels to see who grows faster!

  • Challenge yourself: Intentionally seek out those damaged trees in the distance! Go out of your way and over this log to check out that *other* log! Stay motivated, stay moving (slowly is fine), and stay on task! While some folks do find morels in their backyards: it’s not as often as Facebook makes you think, and you’re probably still going to have to work for them!

  • Don’t Just Wander: Have a plan for your search! When covering an area with high potential by myself, I generally like to either use a grid pattern, or ever-widening circles. You can cover twice the ground with two people, but not if you’re walking single file! Make a plan and stick to it, unless the mushrooms decide otherwise!

Yellow Morel in grass
Classic Morchella americana
  • Train Your Eyes: Some seasoned hunters swear by this trick: before going out foraging for the day, they’ll spend 10-15 minutes looking at pictures of Morels. They really can be difficult to see in the wild at times, and something about the repetitive recognition makes them stand out more! It certainly seems that I get better at spotting them as the day goes by, so the theory may be solid!

  • Watch For Other Pickers: If you can confirm that another picker has Morels in their basket, then you’ve basically guaranteed yourself a new spot, to one degree or another. Once you know that morels grow anywhere nearby, you can start making scouting trips to the area and looking for more signs, stumps, or even morels! Make sure you get there earlier the next year, before the person that you saw this year comes back to their spot!


One of Suzi McCrae’s original designs: “Mushrooms Will Eat You When You Die”. Available as a high quality, laminated Sticker, or on a variety of other Mushroom Merch such as Eco-Friendly Tote Bags and Coffee Mugs!
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