This weekend could be a good one for a treasure hunt—at least, treasure of the mushroom variety, as morels are springing out valleywide.
"They should pop," said Wood River Land Trust Director Scott Boettger. "They won't last, but they'll be out."
Boettger is an avid morel hunter, and said he's already seen the prized mushrooms rearing their heads near the river mid valley. He added that this week's moisture and warming temperatures make conditions ideal for mushroom hunting.
"It's that unique situation in the spring when we warm quick enough and it's not too dry," he said.
According to a study by the U.S. Forest Service, morels grow on the very end of the roots of trees. They were previously thought to feed on decomposing plants, as do other mushrooms such as oysters and buttons, but the Forest Service determined that morels actually form a symbiotic relationship with the host tree, providing the tree with moisture while feeding off the tree's sugars.
The service reports that morels usually are found on the roots of elms, apple, Douglas fir and lodgepole pines, though Boettger said he's had luck around the roots of cottonwoods as well.
He said mushroom hunters often don't realize that morels depend on trees.
"You're not going to find them in the middle of a field," he said.
Locations will vary from year to year, however. Morels only blossom in response to the stress of a tree, in an attempt to flee a dying host.
"When the tree is stressed, like after a fire or if they are dying, the living part of the morel says, 'Uh-oh, we have to find a new host,'" he said.
The best time for morel hunting is often after a fire, Boettger said, because of the sheer number of stressed trees.
"It's not just one tree dying, it's thousands of trees dying," he said. "That's when you get these big bumper crops."
As for where to look, Boettger suggested the trust's Draper Preserve or anywhere along the Big Wood River, so long as it's on public property. This year's isolated thunderstorms have resulted in uneven soil moisture content, he said, making hunting trickier than usual.
"We might have a great crop in one spot, but half a mile down the road, there's nothing," he said.
Mushroom fool's gold
Don't be fooled by the fake morel, known as a verpa. Morel hunter Scott Boettger said the easiest way to identify a verpa is by the stem, which is fibrous, while a true morel's is hollow. The fake morels also have a head shaped more like an umbrella that bells around the stem. The heads and stems of true morels meet without any belling or overlap.
Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress