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You can forage morels in Missouri and Kansas right now. They're more than just delicious

The morel is among the most popular fungi for foraging on either side of the state line, mushroom experts say, and they typically bloom between late March and early May. Mycologists advise hunters to cook morels properly before consuming them.
Missouri Department of Conservation
The morel is among the most popular fungi for foraging on either side of the state line, mushroom experts say, and they typically bloom between late March and early May. Mycologists advise hunters to cook morels properly before consuming them.

There are thousands of different wild mushrooms in Kansas and Missouri, but the morel stands alone when it comes to popularity. It’s a healthy, tasty snack that offers a chance to disconnect from the day-to-day.

Every spring between late March and early May, when the days become warmer and soil damp, mushroom enthusiasts flock to wooded areas in Kansas and Missouri to canvas the forest floor for the tasty morel.

The morel is among the most popular fungi for foraging on either side of the state line, mushroom experts say, due in part to the taste. Unlike some slimy mushrooms, morels have a meatier texture and an earthy, nutty flavor. They are also a healthy snack rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, while still being low-calorie.

And that isn’t the only benefit.

“It can be very good for your mental health, getting out into the forest again — something that humans have been doing as long as we've been humans,” says Mike Snyder of the Missouri Mycological Society. “It's very good for us to breathe in the plant exhalations and to experience the subtle variety of sights and sounds that we encounter.”

While Snyder revels in the opportunity to meet in community and get in touch with nature, gathering mushrooms is more of an individual pursuit for some. Sherry Kay, of the Kaw Valley Mycological Society, likes to forage with others when she can, but knows some hunters are very secretive about their favorite morel hotspots.

Kay also believes foraging is a healthy pursuit at any age.

“I'm 77 years old and I still go out, even if I'm not quite as active as I was,” Kay says. “It's a hunter-gatherer instinct. I think we're hardwired to enjoy it.”

As morels start to pop up around Kansas City and Missouri, Snyder and Kay recommend reaching out to a mycological society in Kansas or Missouri for more information about foraging.

Kay reports things are a little slower right now in Douglas County and nearby areas in Kansas, but that should change in the next few weeks.

For those who happen to find a few fungi poking out of the ground, the pros have these pointers.

Pick during peak season

The best way to tell if it is peak morel season is to watch for changes in nature, whether that be the temperature or precipitation. When dogwood trees bloom, and mayapples and dandelion seed heads pop up, it's often a sign to get out and get foraging.

But be careful — if you head out too early, you might step on and squish the mushrooms.

Morel season is brief, so you might miss it if you aren't on the ball. Luckily, you can always plan ahead for next season.

Kay, of the Kaw Valley Mycological Society, reminds impatient hunters that there are many other worthwhile mushrooms to search for throughout the year. Many foragers miss out on some great mushrooms because they are hyper-focused on morels, she says.

“I've eaten about 50 different species from Kansas,” Kay says. “The deer mushroom is pretty prominent in late spring, and that is good and edible. Chicken of the woods — I've seen them up to six or eight pounds — is a fall mushroom. There’s also hen of the woods which looks like a little dusty hen that's scratching around a tree, that’s my favorite mushroom. They’re nutty and they’re crisp.”

If you’re trying to pick the right day, look for daytime temperatures in the 70s and nighttime temperatures in the 50s, preferably with warm, moist weather.

Check under the cap

With thousands of different kinds of mushrooms in Missouri and Kansas, many of which are not edible, it’s important to properly identify a morel.

One way to do so is by the cap, a pitted head that resembles a sponge or irregular honeycomb. Caps are also often egg-shaped, with rounded tops.

But to people without experience, some toxic mushroom species may resemble morels.

Gyromitra, or “false morels” as they are commonly called, also have wrinkled or folded caps, but are usually smoother than morels and shaped like a brain. The best way to differentiate the two is to slice them open. A real morel will have a hollow cavity inside, while a false morel cap will be chambered and dense.

Hunt near the hardwood

Morels grow directly from the ground, not on a log lying on the ground, and they do not grow outside of spring. And while you won't find morels growing off trees, you will find them growing under certain hardwood species.

Morels are mycorrhizal, meaning their mycelium, or root structure, forms a symbiotic relationship with nearby trees. When the tree is healthy, the mushroom often will not fruit. But when the tree starts to die, it signals the morel to bloom and get more spores into the environment.

“They like to associate with elms and with ashes,” though almost all dead or dying hardwood trees in the Kansas City area have the potential to harbor morels, says Alix Daniel, a native landscape specialist and mushroom expert with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

When hunting for mushrooms, canning up and down is key. Ross examines a large log as Daniel searches for mushrooms like lion’s mane that grow high up on recently-dead trees.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
When hunting for mushrooms, scanning up and down is key. In this 2022 photo, Missouri Department of Conservation native landscape specialist Cydney Ross examines a large log as Alix Daniel searches for mushrooms that grow high up on recently-dead trees.

“I found them under cottonwoods very often. They like to be under oaks and hickory. They really like fruit trees too, like apples and cherries,” Daniel says.

Still, morels can pop up anywhere if conditions are right. Daniel says a coworker recently found a patch on the edge of her gravel driveway.

When on the hunt, it's important to be patient, radiating your sight out away from the trees.

The Missouri Department of Conservation also notes morels can typically be found on south- and west-facing slopes early in the season.

Cook before consuming

Once you’ve found morels, do not eat them right away!

Besides button mushrooms — the kind you find at a salad bar or on a pizza — all mushrooms should be cooked before eating to rid them of potential toxins, Daniel says. If you consume morels raw, those toxins will probably make you sick and can potentially be fatal.

Look no further than Bozeman, Montana, where last year a food poisoning outbreak killed two people and left another 51 sick. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined that it was raw or undercooked morels that were likely the culprit and published their first-ever guidelines on proper consumption.

"The toxins in morel mushrooms that may cause illness are not fully understood; however, using proper preparation procedures, such as cooking, can help to reduce toxin levels," the FDA guidance reads.

Morels should be refrigerated at a temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and in breathable packaging, such as a paper bag, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those morels consumed in Montana were also cultivated in and imported from China. That’s why Daniel says it's so important to think about where you are getting your morels.

“You might have a sweet spot that's got a lot of water, but it's a runoff from trashy water or if it's on a lawn that’s been treated with pesticides or had a dog pee on it twenty times,” Daniel says. “That's one way you can get sick is from the mushrooms themselves pulling up contaminants.”

The Missouri Department of Conservation warns of a few different type of poisonous mushrooms, all illustrated in a guidebook to help people avoid eating the wrong kind.

Still, Daniel says, in addition to cooking mushrooms all the way through, it's never a bad idea to try a little bite to ensure your body doesn’t have an adverse effect.

The Missouri Mycological Society hosts a mushroom foray at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 28, at the Cooley Lake Conservation Area, east of Missouri City, Missouri, off Highway 210. For more information visit MOmyco.org.

As KCUR's health reporter, I cover the Kansas City metro in a way that reflects our expanding understanding of what health means and the ways it touches different communities and different areas in distinct ways. I will provide a platform to amplify ideas and issues often underrepresented in the media and marginalized people and communities in an authentic and honest way that goes beyond the surface of the issues. I will endeavor to find and include in my work local experts and organizations that have their ears to the ground and a beat on the health needs of the community. Reach me at noahtaborda@kcur.org.
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