Chelsea Gilbert couldn’t have picked a better season to try her hand at morel mushroom hunting.
She and her husband have been scooping up the prized delicacies by the bucket across North Idaho this spring.
“We found this hillside covered with them,” said the Spirit Lake woman, whose in-laws have been picking morels for years. “We’ve got at least 100 pounds this season.”
Others are having similar success.
The mild Inland Northwest winter and early spring sunshine, coupled with moderate temperatures and rainfall, created optimal growing conditions for wild morels, which Washington State University researchers say are having a banner year.
“They’ve been large and in good shape,” said WSU plant pathologist Lori Carris, noting that just the right amount of rain percolated into the soil. “We can always tell here on the Palouse when it’s a big year because they start showing up for sale in farmers markets.”
In Spokane and Coeur d’Alene they’ve also found their way into grocery stores and onto restaurant menus. Mushroom hunters are raving on social media about the abundance of morels, and online classifieds are so full of postings that the price they usually fetch has fallen dramatically.
Morels, which feature a wrinkly pinecone-shaped cap, grow wild in forests across the Inland Northwest and tend to do particularly well in charred areas recovering from previous wildfires. But this year they’re also being found growing in piles of dead leaves, woodchip piles, backyard mulch bins, cemeteries and flower beds in urban neighborhoods.
February and March were among the warmest on record, while rainfall remained about average, Carris said.
That combination led to an early season, with mushrooms sprouting by April and likely to continue through mid-June, she said. Typically, the season begins and ends in May, with some higher elevations extending into the first week of June.
Morels are highly sought mushrooms that usually fetch up to $40 per pound but are so abundant this year that prices have fallen to half that in grocery stores and less than $10 per pound for volume purchases online.
“They’re the most beautiful morels I’ve ever seen,” Jill Herrera, produce manager at Main Market Co-op in downtown Spokane, said of this year’s crop. “We’ve had more than I can buy.”
Herrera said she suspects that in addition to the bumper crop, there’s a larger-than-usual number of hunters this year.
“There’s a lot more pickers,” she said Tuesday, noting she gets calls regularly from mushroom hunters looking to sell their latest haul. Additionally, she said she’s seen social media postings from morel aficionados asking for new recipes because they’ve exhausted their own and still have plenty left they want to use.
Although morels have a distinctive appearance, experts say novices should take a mushroom identification class before foraging or tag along with experienced hunters because the risk of picking a poisonous look-alike is too great.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” Carris said.
Pickers also should pay attention to where they’re foraging and obtain permission from the property owner.
In North Idaho, the Panhandle National Forests allows pickers to gather as many mushrooms as they want for personal use but prohibits commercial collection for resale purposes.
In Eastern Washington, the Colville National Forest allows mushroom hunters to pick up to 3 gallons per day for personal use at no charge. Those who harvest mushrooms for sale must obtain a commercial permit, which costs either $5 per day or $100 per season and allows pickers to exceed the 3-gallon daily limit.
Gilbert, the new morel hunter, said she and her husband have gathered so many mushrooms this year that each meal has become a delicious treat.
“I think it’s such a good year for morels nobody’s buying any more,” Gilbert said. “And that’s fine. We eat them constantly and are finding lots of ways to use them in the kitchen.”
Staff writer Becky Kramer contributed to this report.