Here’s a tip. Next spring, when apple trees bloom and white oak leaves reach the size of a mouse’s ear, look for morel mushrooms.

The brainy-looking fungus lures restaurant gourmands and backwoods grazers alike from mossy forests in Oregon to North Carolina’s hardwoods. Morels make an elusive delicacy, and they can’t be bought in most grocery stores. The mushrooms won’t grow if it’s too hot, too dry, too wet, or too cold. Some hunters say they only find them after a brush-clearing forest fire.

Filling a basket with morels also promises an aromatic meal with a whiff of danger. Like many mushrooms, morels have imposters, cousins that kill. Mushroom dilettantes beware. The only safe way to tell what you’ve got is to ask an expert.

Bill Burk may not claim that he’s an expert, but the botany librarian at the Couch Biology Library sure knows how to find morels. On a clear April morning, Burk leads a group of 27 mushroom hunters on a foray. Next to a two-lane road a few miles from campus he stops at a stand of hard-woods—tulip poplars, oaks, and beeches—mingled with short-needle pines. The choice of trees matters. In the Piedmont, morels are most often found at the base of tulip poplar and beech trees.

While some mushroom hunters guard their secret spots, Burk says his fungi forebears have lead novices to this spot for nearly 100 years. William Coker, the founder of Carolina’s botany department, brought students to these woods in the early 1900s. Members of the Triangle Area Mushroom Club have made it a spring event for the last 18 years.

The signs aren’t good that we’ll find very many this year,” Burk tells the group. “I don’t want to be a harbinger of gloom, but the biological signs are pretty bleak. We’ve had rain, but not a lot of rain. Morels need that drenching onslaught of rain. It’s also gotten hot and may be too dry.”

Burk gives a last-minute warning about poison ivy, and the group disperses as if on an Easter egg hunt. Dried leaves swish about their boots. Some mushroom hunters clutch woven egg baskets, so as not to damage the goods.

Fifteen-year-old Emily Currier finds one first, right beside a hiking trail. “It was just along the path,” she says. She and her father, Tom Currier, drove from Raleigh to take part in the mushroom hunt. Emily’s Morchella angusticeps-about three inches long, capped with dark brown crevices like the bark on a tree-gathers a crowd. But Burk cautions that if there’s one, more are underfoot. Sure enough, he spots one-a five-inch beauty just a few feet down the trail. He thinks it may be the tallest morel he’s found in these woods.

Burk says he has a nose for morels because he’s been hunting them for years. He got his master’s degree in botany from Michigan State University, where mushroom forays sometimes bag foot-tall morels.

I like to go early in the morning, when the sun is at an angle,” he says. “It seems to be like a spotlight to me. When the sun is directly overhead, I don’t get that effect.”

Another good time, Burk says, is right after a rainstorm because the morels stand out from wet, darker leaves. So far, a year hasn’t gone by without finding at least a handful of morels. In the mid-1980s, mushroom club members enjoyed a bumper crop, taking home hundreds of the tasty fungi in shopping bags. Morels appeared in people’s driveways, along sidewalks, and even in Battle Park on campus. Last year, club members took home about 70 mushrooms in all, a normal year.

Two mushroom hunters, Pat McConnell and her husband Owen McConnell, a retired psychology professor, helped found the Triangle Area Mushroom Club. They’ve eaten 20 to 30 different types of wild mushrooms, but the morels are their favorites. Owen is often called upon to identify wild mushrooms for the group.

I can’t tell you what a morel tastes like,” Pat says. “It’s absolutely delicious.” The McConnells like to sauté their morels in butter with a dash of salt. She says they keep it simple because “the flavor is so fantastic, you don’t want to miss it.”

I’m often asked what it tastes like,” Burk says. “Well, it tastes like a morel because there’s absolutely nothing else that tastes like a morel.”

Burk has developed an allergy to them, to his great disappointment. But he still enjoys smelling them as they cook. Besides, he can enjoy other mushrooms. He plucks a cluster of oyster mushrooms, one of his favorite fungi, from a downed tree.

I gained a fascination for fungi when I was in graduate school,” he says. “I think one of the exciting things about mushrooms and fungi are all the shapes, forms and colors. They can be so bizarre, like the stinkhorns, or the bracket fungi.”

Burk’s not alone. In the past 20 years, amateur mushroom clubs have sprung up like, well, mushrooms after a soaking rain. He says he would like more people to appreciate fungi the way they appreciate plants and flowers.

Mushrooms and fungi are a part of our ecosystem,” he says. “They’re decomposers, they also provide food for wildlife and for research experimentation.”

However, Burk advises newcomers to seek expert identification before eating any wild mushroom. False morels, which can make you nauseous, contain the compound mono-methyl-hydrosol, also found in rocket fuel. As with any new food, Burk says, take a small bite at first.


Despite their wily nature, morels may become big business. So far only Terry Farms, an Illinois-based mushroom farm, successfully cultivates morels. The company ships nearly 3,000 pounds of morels a week from their Auburn, Alabama, mushroom farm. Rod Sorensen, general manager, says their mushrooms are sold coast to coast, most often ending up on $80-a-plate restaurant tables, such as at the Charleston Grill in South Carolina.

Terry Farms purchased the rights to a morel fruiting process a few years ago. Domino’s Pizza owned the rights before that, but was still working in the lab and never sold them as toppings. “A few million bucks later, we’re in business,” Sorensen says. Now a two-ounce package of morels costs $4.99, or $40 a pound, in grocery stores.

The hardest part about growing morels is getting them to fruit, Sorensen says. “They have a rather convoluted life cycle. That’s preventing most people from doing it.”

Bill Burk met the man who first patented a fruiting method. Ronald Ower worked with a biotechnology company associated with Michigan State University in the early 1980s. Ower studied how to coax a part of the morel called the sclerotium into bearing fruit. This stage of the morel life cycle is not found in cultivated mushrooms. The large cells of the sclerotium protect morels during the winter. Come spring, the sclerotium either grows a new mycelium—the underground fungal body—or bears fruit. Ower deduced just what kind of nutrition, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, and temperature must be met to coax the fungus to grow a morel.

Burk says that he remembers a professor in graduate school telling the class, “Whoever discovers this secret will be a millionaire.” A few weeks before a patent was granted in 1986, Ower was robbed and murdered in a San Francisco park.

Thanks to Ower’s work, morels may become regularly stocked next to shiitakes and button mushrooms at supermarkets. But the hunts will go on. Burk compares mushroom hunting in the U.S. to forays in eastern European countries.

Hunting for mushrooms has been for many, many centuries an important pastime in Russia and Poland and Slavic countries,” he says. “It’s a part of their life. A family would go out and look for mushrooms on a Sunday afternoon.”

For Burk and fellow mushroom club members, that’s a tradition worth savoring in North Carolina, as well.

Christopher Hammond was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.