As we’ve discussed before, the off-season mushroom hunting in Arizona is hit or miss, and more miss than hit most winters. But there has been a decent amount of moisture in the high country so far this year, even if most of it fell as rain instead of snow in this warm winter. If the precipitation comes, you can find mushrooms in any month in this state, thanks to our wide variety of biomes and climactic conditions.
Here at the AZ Mushroom Forum, and especially on our Facebook group page, we’ve been seeing a few pictures of spring edibles coming in. And just this past weekend (3/21-22/2015), we found the first morels of the year. Read on for full details!
The inky caps above, Coprinopsis atramentaria or one of its near relatives, were found in Sierra Vista in mid-March by Eddie Bolero.
Terri Clements found Agaricus bitorquis, a choice edible, in the Cottonwood area during the week of March 15th. These are really delicious mushrooms, but bugs had already discovered many of them first, a perennial problem with this distinctively double-ringed species that matures underground.
Mike Dechter found these thick, tasty brown winter oysters in the Pleurotus ostreatus complex on dead river-bottom cottonwood (Populus fremontii) near Camp Verde in February 2015. Must be nice to have a job that pays you to tramp around in the forest!
Horace Sheffield sent these pictures of hypogeous (underground) fungi he found in the Sedona area in early March. We’re not quite sure if they are true truffles or false truffles. Very likely they are false truffles in the genus Rhizopogon, which are quite common in Arizona forests. Our hypogeous species are not known to be poisonous, but the taste of the mostly rather mediocre Arizona varieties does not withstand comparison to the famous white and black truffles of France and Italy. They must be picked at the peak of ripeness to be worth the effort, which means either using a trained dog or pig to sniff them out, or being a careful student of nature so as to observe the squirrels at work digging them up for winter food. Truffle raking is destructive to the mycelial micro-environment, results in collecting many worthless under-ripe or over-ripe specimens, and is to be discouraged.
This deliquescing coprinoid species was found in the Prescott area in mid-March by Marko Misemer. Quite possibly it is an old Shaggy Mane, Coprinus comatus. It would require a bit more investigation to know for sure, and this dried-out old specimen was not worth it.
I found a pretty good haul of oyster mushrooms myself, also on dying cottonwood, along Oak Creek shortly after the flooding rains of early March 2015. I collected about 3.5 pounds altogether, but much of that weight was mud that had to be washed off. No bugs, and in great shape for eating once they were cleaned.
Oh yes, I almost forgot one other thing. Not!
This past Friday, 3/20/2015, I got an excited call from a morel-savvy friend who had just found a hatful of morels in the Verde Valley under cottonwood and sycamore (Platanus wrightii) trees. Elevation was about 3200 feet and soil temperatures were about 57 degrees Fahrenheit at the site where he found them. These were natural blond morels in the Morchella esculenta group, not the fire morels we found in such abundance last fall. However, none remained in the area where he had found them before our outing together.
Over the course of the weekend, we looked in a variety of elevations and habitats between 3000 and 6000 feet. Soil temperatures were over 60 degrees at 3000 feet, which can still be productive for morels, but not optimal. At 4000 feet in riparian zones, soil temps were typically around 55 degrees, which is the sweet spot for morel fruiting. However, the areas we looked at were relatively dry and no morels were found. Going up to 6000 feet in the Ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa) forest, the soil temps were down to 45 degrees, which is still too cold for morels. This saved us a trip up to the Slide Fire burn, which lies at 7000 feet and higher, and was sure to be even colder. We will be returning there later in the year for sure, especially if we have a wet April as the NOAA has predicted.
We finally hit pay dirt at the 5000 foot level in shady, damp groves of Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica). Soil temperatures were 52-54℉ at 10 cm. The Sedona red rock country mostly grows junipers and chaparral scrub of no great interest to mushroom hunters, but in the bottom of canyon drainages between 4000 and 7000 feet, there will often be thickets of these otherwise rather rare evergreens lining the watercourses. These cypress groves can be very dense and gloomy, which is good for retaining the moisture that would otherwise evaporate promptly in Arizona’s dry climate. I’ve always heard that the natural morels of springtime are to be sought at somewhat lower and flatter elevations under the cottonwoods and sycamores, so I had my doubts about the wisdom of my companion’s determination to explore the domain of this unfamiliar species of tree.
But I should not have doubted him. The looming, vertical canyon walls shield these gladed ravines and canyons from prolonged sunlight, and at their feet, seeps and springs supplied by winter snows on the canyon rims maintain damp micro-climates even in the depths of summer. Amidst the vertical cliffs, one also finds large flat areas of hard red rock, which act as giant catchments funneling moisture to the watercourses on their margins. Just as the inhabitants of a dry tropical island will collect the rainfall from their roofs in a cistern, the downhill edges of these large horizontal megaliths tend to collect water in damp, mossy depressions at their edges.
These are the sites where my highly experienced partner took me, having found the elusive morels there many times in the past, and our lengthy hike was finally rewarded with only three medium-sized gray-blonde morels poking through the duff. At more than a mile of steep, rough walking per morel discovered, these areas are in no danger of being strip-mined by commercial pickers, and I don’t even think there are near enough to make it worth calling out the Arizona Mushroom Club for a group foray. However, this weekend’s somewhat scanty finds still hold out the promise of a decent meal or two of morels for any enthusiastic amateur with the desire and vigor to spend a strenuous afternoon hiking through some of the most beautiful parts of God’s creation.
Of course everyone wants to come home with baskets and bags full of morels rather than just enough for one small omelet, but I think the difference between getting skunked altogether and finding merely a handful of morels is far greater than the marginal pleasure gained from finding an even larger quantity. Even one morel under your knife bears witness that you have successfully read the weather, the season, the temperatures, the terrain, the vegetation, the soil, and all the other factors that have to come together. What immense satisfaction it gives to kneel down on a carpet of green moss and collect even the merest crumb that falls from the Lord’s rich table at the time and place that He chose…
Before writing up this report this evening, my wife and I enjoyed my modest prize with a rich wine reduction sauce over a filet mignon, with a nice glass of Kief-Joshua Magdalena from a great little winery in Southern Arizona. In a few bites, their incomparable flavor reminded me of why we flog ourselves up hill and down for such a trifling return on our labors.
As a courtesy to my friend who showed me these places, I am sorry I cannot be more specific about their location. I will give a few hints, but you must earn the pleasure of discovery on your own. These morels were found on a west-facing slope at 5000 feet elevation amongst Arizona cypress trees, and near the foot of a large south-facing red-rock cliff. They were within two hundred yards of a road, and within a hundred yards of one of the “medicine wheels” or “vortexes” that the New Agers of Sedona are fond of constructing. Running water and green moss were found close by, but the terrain where the morels actually came up was dryer than I expected.
Good luck on your hunt if you decide to go out this week. The ground in the red rock country was still damp in many places after the heavy rains of early in the month and the light rain last week, and the mushrooms we found were quite young and fresh. I think the riparian zones under the sycamores and cottonwoods at the 3000-5000 foot elevations are still worth searching too, especially in areas that saw flooding over the past few weeks, and in areas of disturbed ground like irrigation ditches and berms. There may be a week or ten days left to go after these natural morels. If we don’t get rain soon, though, I think that will be the end of it. But with any luck, we will have another chance on the black fire morels above 7000 feet in the late April/early May time frame.
If you have any success, by all means send photographs. Nothing brings out the braggart in all of us like a big bag of morels, and that’s OK. And if you stumble into a large flush that is accessible to people of varying physical abilities, in quantities sufficient to make a group foray worthwhile, please consider notifying the Arizona Mushroom Club so that others can share in the pleasure and good fortune that you enjoyed.
Happy hunting! Don’t forget your Red Rock Pass![Addendum 3/25/2015: These images were posted on the WildMushroomHunting.org Facebook page, and the species was identified by several knowledgeable individuals as Morchella rufobrunnea. This is the same as the so-called “landscape morel” that can fruit in landscaping bark chips and garden mulch beds in almost any season along the West Coast. Presumably the bark that peels off the Arizona cypresses provides a similar habitat. The key to the identification is the reddish-brown bruising that gives them the name “rufobrunnea”, and you can see some of this bruising on and near the cut edges of the stipe on some of the images. The light-colored ribs are also characteristic, as are the dark pits that are much longer than they are wide. Other authors such as States and Arora call it M. deliciosa, but this name is now deprecated.]