Morel update May 2015 – Not bad, not great

Arizona mushroom hunters have seen all too many dry, warm winter and spring seasons come and go with no hint of morel fruitings. However, 2015 is not one of those seasons! In addition to dribs and drabs of natural (non-fire) morels as reported previously, we’re now seeing some action on the Slide Fire, with the expectation of more to come. And we may yet see a flush on the San Juan, Sitgreaves Complex, or some of the other natural and controlled fires we’ve endured in the past year.

Slide-Fire-Morel-M-Dechter

(Mike Dechter)

Morels favor cold, wet, snowy winters, and until the beginning of March it appeared we would have exactly the opposite. But heavy rains hit in early March, especially in the Slide Fire area. Since then, cooler temperatures and occasional snows and rains have occurred intermittently over much of the state. Such wet, cold weather is atypical in Arizona in April and May, but not unheard of.  This picture was taken on an expedition to the Slide just last weekend:

Snow on the Slide Fire May 2015

(Jan Stepanek)

Even before this latest snow, folks had been finding morels on the Slide fire for a week or more. I heard scuttlebutt last week of two people finding over 400 morels between them in one day on the Slide.  However, I have also heard from a number of parties who found only one or two, or a handful, or a hatful, and more than a few who found none at all.

I went up on Saturday May 2nd, and met up with several carloads of friends and Forum readers who wanted to do some scouting. I didn’t promise anything to anybody, but it turned out to be a modest success. We probably picked close to 300 morels between 11 people. Soil temps were in the low to mid-50’s, and damp enough underfoot that I slipped in the mud and moss several times.

It was the first real meeting of the Fellowship of the Fire Morel, and it was a blast, with a very congenial bunch of people, and enough morels that everyone had enough for a good meal or two. I was so pleased, I celebrated with my very last real Cuban Montecristo cigar.

Our finds were almost all under Douglas fir (Pseudotsugae menziesii) and only rarely under Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa). We found that trees that had been well scorched on the trunk and lower branches, but still had green crowns, were the most productive. Moonscapes where the trees were blackened skeletons and the humus of the forest floor was incinerated were devoid of morels, as were places where there had only been mild ground fires or backfires that did not ascend into the understory. Green moss, north-facing slopes, and the presence of indicator species (like the cup ascomycete Geopyxis carbonaria and some fire-loving inky-cap/mica-cap coprinoids that might be Coprinellus angulatus) were also keys to success. And review of the weather maps made it plain that the lion’s share of the recent moisture has fallen on the south side of West Fork Canyon, which divides the Slide Fire burn area into northern and southern halves. You need to be prepared to drive 25+ miles on rough, muddy dirt roads to get there.

Blonde-Slide-Fire-Morel-J-Stepanek

(Jan Stepanek)

Since I posted pictures of our outing on the Facebook group page, many people have been inquiring whether the Arizona Mushroom Club intends to call a group foray. I’ve spoken to several officers of the Club about this, and the answer is that so long as the fruiting is taking place only on the relatively inaccessible south side of the Slide Fire, it will probably not happen. A club foray will often consist of 20 or 30 vehicles, many of them passenger cars, requiring accessible terrain and a large enough fruiting of target species to make the trip worthwhile for collectors of all ages, skill levels, and degrees of physical fitness. If the San Juan fire flushes well, especially after the rains expected later this week, they will likely put out the word for a group foray. If they do, we will be sure to pass it along here.

However, all things considered, this seems unlikely. We are on our own, and should probably concentrate on the Slide fire for the next couple of weeks.  While the April/May storm systems have dropped a modest amount of precipitation on both of these big fires, the total accumulation still favors the Slide. And going back to the big storms of March, there is no comparison. The Slide received over 10 inches of rain in two months, and this much moisture has likely recharged the mycelium to a significantly greater degree than on the the San Juan, despite much of it having fallen more than six weeks ago.

The risks associated with entering such an isolated part of the forest are not to be taken lightly. Jan Stepanek was stuck in the mud for nearly an hour on the snowy day depicted above, and Anna Kawski saw a black bear a little close for comfort. It would be best if you had a 4×4 equipped for an overnight stay in the woods in case of emergency, and even better if you went in a convoy with other vehicles.

I intend to spend at least a day up there this coming weekend, although I am not sure whether it will be Saturday or Sunday or both. It depends greatly on the rainfall. A heavy rain on Friday will probably require waiting until things dry out a bit Sunday.  As the weekend approaches, I will elaborate on my planned outing at further length on our Facebook group page and the private member’s page on this web site, with some more detailed discussion of locations and forest road numbers that would be worthwhile targets for our efforts. You are welcome to tag along, at your own risk, if you have a suitable vehicle. If you go out before then, we’d appreciate seeing your brag photos and hearing about how things went for you.

When you’re out in the woods, it would also be worthwhile to keep an eye out for other edibles that can fruit outside our regular summer season. Among others, this includes oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus spp.; velvet-foot mushrooms, Flammulina populicola; dryad’s saddle, Polyporus squamosus; and the giant sawgill, Neolentinus ponderosus.

And enjoy this unusual weather while it lasts! All too soon we will be back in the sweltering heat of an Arizona summer, counting the days until the monsoons finally arrive in the high country and kick off our main season.

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[Added 5/16/15]

I’ve had two reports of morels found in small quantities on the San Juan Fire. With the extra moisture received this week, and one or two more weak storms forecast for next week, it is possible that there could be a flush over the next couple of weeks worth making a trip for.

As always, if you find a large fruiting that is accessible from a road that can be reached without 4WD, consider alerting the Arizona Mushroom Club for a group foray.

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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