For many years I wanted to learn about wild foods and mushroom hunting but I didn’t know anyone else in Alabama with an interest in foraging. Then I met my love, a man from the Pacific Northwest that had relocated far from his native soggy habitat to the deep south. I never even knew what a morel was until hearing his stories of picking Washington wildfire morels. After stumbling upon landscape morels a few years ago in Birmingham, then learning that these beauties actually do grow in Alabama’s woods, we started hunting for them. And now, every Spring, when the elm leaves are the size of a mouse ear, we make it a point to visit our local forests.
When I first tasted those landscape morels, I grew a bit obsessed with finding them actually growing wild. We hiked many days and covered countless miles of trail before discovering our first morel in the woods. Well, it wasn’t exactly “in the woods”, it was a solitary blonde located in a picnic space, directly off a well-traveled trail. But, after finding that first one, we thoroughly covered the area and found plenty more growing in a stretch of recently cleared privet. The next weeks were spent picking fat blonde Morchella on the surrounding trails.
Several years have passed since we found that first one. When we hit the trails now, we are hiking with two kids and a dog. Our foraging adventures are considered a success if we manage to come out of the woods with even a handful of fungus. Realistically, my foraging goal is usually to find enough mushrooms to flavor a cream sauce for a pasta supper. We are always happy to be in the woods no matter what, but we are always dreaming of the next big morel score.
I found the first morels of the season this year on February 27th. A few days later I went back out to the area by myself hoping to maybe find just a few more. I hiked the trail for a bit and then rambled off through a thicket hoping to find a hidden trove of fungal treasure. Wandering through the bramble was pointless, as usual. When I had finally given up and was heading out of the woods, I caught a glimpse of a few grey cones poking up through the leaf litter…..and then a few more…….and then a few more. I stood on the trail with my mouth gapped open, probably drooling on myself a bit. I was looking at the most beautiful patch of morels I had ever seen. They were in plain view about 20 feet from the trail head. I had walked right past them twice that day!
After taking a ton of pictures and really appreciating the beauty of my find, I squatted down at the edge of the small plot to start harvesting. I had gathered up a few morels, but then had to stop. I could not enjoy picking that most magnificent patch all alone. I had to wait to share the moment with my foraging/life partner. I texted him pictures and went home with plans of coming back the next day to pick them together. But I heard back almost immediately. It is amazing how quickly he was able to break away from work and get out to the woods! We headed back that same afternoon in a downpour. My Northwestern man looked right at home picking those morels in the Alabama rain.
Picking this perfect patch of morels was my favorite foraging experience yet. We harvested 2 & 1/2 pounds in a matter of minutes. This was not the first time we had picked that many morels in a day, but it is the first time we picked that many in one spot. They were all growing together in an area smaller than our living room. We may hunt Morels every Spring for the rest of our lives, and never have a more perfect foraging experience.
The morel hunting tips:
- Morels in the Southeast are commonly found among privet shrubs; privet that is growing under hardwoods or in areas where hardwoods once grew. Privet and morels both flourish in areas with disturbed soil.
- You are probably more likely to find morels directly on hiking trails than deep in the forest. So, wear comfortable shoes and plan on walking many miles. Covering ground and keeping an eye out will serve you better than looking intently in a limited area.
- Morels do like growing in bottom lands, but they also grow on banks and hillsides. Don’t limit your searching to just the low, flat areas.
- Around here, grey morels fruit first and are smaller and harder to see than blonde morels. Blonde morels will fruit later in the season, are bigger and usually easier to spot. If you find grey morels in the woods, you might find blondes 3 weeks later growing in the same area.
- If you are searching for morels on State owned lands in Alabama, please know that harvesting any foraged edibles from state parks is illegal. I’m not aware of this law ever being enforced. But if you are indescretely foraging in our state parks, you might find yourself with a ticket.
- If you are focusing too hard on finding morels, you might miss many other delicious forest foods. One of our best days foraging included morels, chicken of the woods and bear tooth fungus.
- Most importantly, even if you don’t find morels, you are feeding your soul when you walk through the forest in early Spring. Enjoy every step.