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Morel Mushroom Hunting in Utah

A black morel thrives in its natural habitat.
The mushroom morel image by Ludmila Galchenkova from Fotolia.com

Morel mushrooms were first hunted in Europe. The practice spread to North America, where it's steadily gained popularity. Not only is hunting morels a way to forage for your own food, but it's also a wonderful way to stay fit, because it involves nature walks and hiking. Many might think that Utah is too arid for moisture-loving morels, but that's simply not the case. According to Don Johnston at the Mushroom Society of Utah (MSU), the state has "some of the best mushroom crops in the world."

Mushroom Hunting Supplies

The Mushroom Society of Utah provides a list of basic supplies recommended for a morel hunting excursion: a basket, a notepad and pencil for noting what you find and where, a digging tool, waxed paper or paper bags to wrap your findings, a magnifying glass to examine smaller specimens, a field guide on mushrooms, food and water.

Identification of the Morel

The edge of the cap on a half-free mushroom does not attach directly to the stem.
Morille image by Nico_2 from Fotolia.com

The morel is but one type of mushroom in a larger class of fungi. Morel mushrooms, or Morchella spp., come in three varieties. Each is basically similar in outward appearance. Pits and ridges cover the surface of the morel's cap. The edge of the cap terminates at the stem, unlike many mushrooms on which the caps edge umbrellas away from the stem. Morels are commonly nicknamed sponge, pinecone or honeycomb mushrooms for their ridged and pitted appearance. The Morchella esculenta starts as a white morel and upon aging, gains a yellow-brown appearance. This variety is commonly referred to as the "yellow morel" and can grow up to 12 inches in height. The Morchella elata or "black morel" also known as the "smoky morel" starts light tan or gray and ages to a nearly black coloration. The Morchella semilibera or "half-free morel" is a bit of an anomaly as its attachment point to the stem is not the edge of the cap, but roughly halfway to it.

Poisonous Look-Alike

Similar in appearance, the false-morel is mildly poisonous.
first mushrooms. image by firsov from Fotolia.com

Another mushroom indigenous to Utah, the Verpa bohemica looks nearly identical to the morel, but is mildly poisonous. This mushroom, nicked named "false morel" differs most notably by how its stem and cap join. The false morel's cap hugs the stem closely, so it appears to be a morel. However, if examined, it becomes evident the stem's only attachment is the center of the cap. The easiest way for a novice to differentiate is to cut the specimen in half vertically to see how the stem attaches.

Where to Find Morels in Utah

The moist ground, especially around dead trees in forested areas of Utah net the highest reward for mushroom hunters. In particular, the Uinta Mountains are noted be a wonderful hunting ground for this activity. The Salt Lake Tribune featured an article about a businessman who makes a living selling mushrooms, many of which he finds in the Uinta Mountains. Don Johnsto, as of 2010, at MSU holds a monthly mushroom foray throughout mushroom season, which is from April to September.

Other Morel Facts

Before cooking, morels should be cut in half to check for any insects that might have made them a home. Morels should always be cooked before eating because they contain toxins which can make nearly anyone quite ill. The process of cooking eliminates the toxins, making the mushrooms safe for consumption.

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