Fire morels cap off the fine 2014 late season

West Fork Canyon from Buzzard Point

The mushroom season in Arizona has lingered rather late in 2014, with persistent monsoon rains and relatively warm weather. Plenty of bragging photographs of good edibles are still being posted in our Facebook group, even as this is written at the end of the last full week in September. Here’s a gallery showing some of the great things our readers have found in the last two weeks of this late season:

We have seen good production from the Mogollon Rim, Flagstaff area, White Mountains, and other less commonly hunted sites such as Mt. Lemmon, the Chiricahuas, and Mingus Mountain. Success has tended to follow the spotty rains, and the hunting has been inconsistent, with some people finding little or nothing of interest. Nonetheless, the 2014 late season will be one to remember for its prolonged production of species such as Barrows’ boletes and Caesar’s amanitas that are more typically found early in the season.

But all the delicious edibles shown above were put in the shade recently when Mike Dechter posted pictures of morels he found this week south of Flagstaff. He has been exploring the forested area above Oak Creek Canyon that burned in the Slide Fire earlier this year. These “fire morels” or “burn morels” found after Western conifer forest fires are also called “gray morels”, and typically get the scientific binomial of Morchella tomentosa. However, they can take on a remarkable range of colors from yellow to gray to black, and morel taxonomy is a source of constant controversy. Mike’s collection seems more yellow-brown than anything.

Numbers were few, and there was a lot of hiking to find them, but I’m sure Mike would agree that the privilege of dining on fresh morels in the fall made all the effort worth it. Burn morels are far more common in the spring, but fall fruitings like this are occasionally seen when conditions are right, as in recent weeks.

In hopes of repeating Mike’s success, Anthoni Goodman and I went out yesterday (9/25) for an all-day foray. We started in Hart Prairie northwest of Flagstaff, where we found many very good but not choice edibles: Aspen boletes (Leccinum insigne) in good condition, Barrows’ milk caps (Lactarius barrowsii), Floccularia straminea, puffballs (Lycoperdon perlatum), and a large number of lobster mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum).

This has been a great year for lobsters, especially in the Flagstaff area, but until yesterday we thought the flush had run its course. Only about one in ten of them was in good enough condition to satisfy our picky palates after the past six weeks of eating all we wanted.

I also found three Barrows’ boletes (Boletus barrowsii), the latest fruiting of these choice edibles I have ever seen or heard of. Two of them were soggy bug hotels and were left in the field. The other one was young and firm with white pores, and will soon be part of my breakfast omelet.

After lunch, we explored the Slide Fire, making our way along Roads 535 and 231 all the way down to Buzzard Ridge. The panorama above was taken from East Buzzard Point, overlooking the spectacular canyon of the West Fork of Oak Creek. You can see that the fire has charred much of the vegetation in and above West Fork Canyon. However, the overall damage to this jewel of the Arizona wilderness is less than I had feared. The vast majority of the burned area I saw was on the ground rather than in the crowns of the trees, and the forest is already recovering.

We sought out the more heavily burned-over wastelands, in hopes of duplicating Mike Dechter’s success on fire morels. These seem to prefer moonscapes where the pine needle litter on the forest floor has been burned off completely. After several stops along the way, with multiple miles of hiking, all we had found were numerous good-quality puffballs, one incongruous Caesar’s amanita, and some brownish Helvella or Gyromitra that resembled morels but are not to be eaten because of the risk of toxicity from gyromitrin and monomethylhydrazine.

Slide Fire Morels

Finally, as sundown was closing in, we hit a (very small) jackpot on Buzzard Ridge. There at our feet were a dozen small morels, their grayish-yellow, wrinkled contours camouflaging them very effectively against the surrounding forest-fire debris. None was larger than an egg. But still, what a sight to see at any time of the year, and especially at the end of September! Into the basket they went, even the tiny ones, as we knew we would not be making the lengthy trek back to Buzzard Ridge any time soon.

I had some trepidation about posting these finds, fearing that the word would get out to voracious commercial pickers. But after collecting on average no more than two morels for every mile we hiked, I know they will be safe from everyone but the most fanatic mushroom hobbyists, the kind of people for whom one skillet full of morels is worthy of a five-mile hike. We are due for heavy rain this weekend, and I strongly suspect that morel maniacs would stand a good chance of seeing more — perhaps a lot more — of these little treasures if they went out in the burned-over areas next week.

And of course, there is always the prospect of spring morels after a big burn. Let’s hope and pray for a cold, wet El Niño winter that will really make these sites flush come April next year.

If you are interested in morels, here are a few other references that you may find worth reading:

  • The Spring 2009 issue of the Arizona Mushroom Club’s newsletter “The Arizona Fun-Gi”, sadly now defunct, was devoted entirely to morel mushrooms in Arizona.
  • There is a well-illustrated article on fire morels from Daniel Winkler of Mushroaming.com. He runs myco-tourism trips that may interest some of our readers.
  • This article about hunting forest-fire morels in the Sierra Nevada of California is from Honest-Food.net, the excellent website of a self-described “Hunter/Angler/Gardener/Cook” that all slow-food, local-food, and wild-food enthusiasts will want to bookmark. It has some tips that will be useful for Arizona foragers, who face similar conditions. He reiterates the point that the more incinerated the landscape, the more likely you are to find morels. A crown-fire inferno consuming large trees will show more subsequent morel fruiting than after a controlled burn on the ground in small second-growth timber.
  • Larry Evans’ Fungal Jungal has an article on fire morels that is noteworthy for its description of other marker species that occur at the same time, and a section on distinguishing true from false morels.
  • Larry also wrote a two-part article for FUNGI Magazine on fire morels in the Fall 2008 and Spring 2009 issues. Only the second part is available on-line, but you can order back issues relatively inexpensively.
  • The Spring 2010 and Spring 2013 editions of FUNGI Magazine concentrated exclusively on morels and would be a good resource for those of a more scientific bent (*cough* bill warner *cough*). Again, parts of these are not available online, but the back issues can be ordered from the link above.
  • Michael Kuo’s book Morels is a comprehensive 2005 reference that would also be of special interest to real enthusiasts.

About Christopher May

Chris is a radiologist in private practice in Scottsdale. He is married to Barbara May, with two grown children, Megan and Nick.
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One Response to Fire morels cap off the fine 2014 late season

  1. Pingback: Unexpectedly good rainfall; will the fire morels pop? | Arizona Mushroom Forum

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