Montana Mushroom Foraging: Burn Morels

I spent July 2023 in Montana for work, for a wedding and for fun. One of the opportunities I had was to attend a talk from Jon Sommer head of Colorado mycological society and then go on a short foraging hike with them. This launched me into an experience I’d always wanted to try: eating mushrooms I had foraged from nature!

With a few guidelines I picked up from him, I started searching for mushrooms everywhere to practice going through some of the common identification steps: coloration, stickiness, smell, skirt presence, spore color, gill (or non-gill) shape and attachment. My basic guidelines were:

  • Never eat uncooked mushrooms
  • No mushroom is poisonous to touch
  • There is no need to conserve harvesting mushrooms due to their abundance primarily in the substrate and ineffectiveness of their fruiting bodies.
  • Always dig a little and pull the mushroom from the base

Jon mentioned that now (July) was likely a good time for Burn Morels in Montana there was a website which helped locate likely patches of them. Feeling like I had the most insider information I would have for a mushroom foraging mission I hopped onto to check out these maps and see if there was something nearby Bozeman I could pay a visit too. Modern Forestry also had a primer for hunting Burn Morels to help identification and potential mistakes.

Burn Morels, how not to mess up:

  • No non-gilled mushrooms can kill you (they can make you sick)
  • Burn Morels have two main “False Morels” but typically don’t grow near each other and very easy to identify a true Morel ((Verpa bohemica) and the beefsteak (Gyromitra esculenta))

The real morel:

  • Hollow when you cut it lengthwise from the bottom of the stem to the top of the cap. It does not have chambers or anything inside the steam, it is just hollow.
  • The bottom of the cap is connected to the top of the stem in a fluid line.
  • The cap has pits and ridges (not wrinkles).

From this primer and the maps, I fell onto these guidelines for finding a good Burn Morel area:

  • Find last year’s fires: Most active year after fire (but also 2nd and 3rd year)
  • Find an area that is well forested but wasn’t super-devastated that has a mixed of burn and non-burned trees
  • Find a location which is likely to have nearby moisture
  • Choose an area by recent temperature at that elevation. We are looking for early warm up temps, not the super hot temps.

So with an area picked out, we downloaded the Montana Mushroom Guide, checked the permit restrictions for personal harvesting and drove out across decently maintained dirt roads in the Montana wilderness. After parking and walking across an amazing field of wildflowers we made it to the edge of the burn and started walking around looking for Burn Morels.

After a 30 minutes we began to find some and further narrowed in our search with the following tips:

  • Look for Orange Cup Fungus which can blanket the ground in patches of very small cups
  • Look near the interface of trees with needles/leaves and those burned
  • Near shaded burnt trees base and under logs, typically shade
  • Look for moisture, we found almost all our morels in damp mud, often covered in pine needles
Orange cup fungus all over the earth
Orange Cup Fungus

Often a Burn Morel looked similar to a small pinecone and could be easy to miss.

A burn morel, looking from above

However, we managed to harvest about a gallon of them to be taken back home, cooked up and eaten. While edible, some people are sensitive to Burn Morels so I only had a portion of the Morels for dinner to ensure I didn’t have a reaction. They were savory, earthy and delicious. It was a wonderful experience and I totally get the allure of the mushroom foraging craze.

Finally, let me leave you with some fun mushroom facts:

  • Fugus is older than plants and actually created dirt
  • There are spicy mushrooms (Rufous Milk Cap or Lactarius Rufus)
  • Some mushrooms can give off 1+ billion spores an hour