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  • Writer's pictureOrion Aon

Finding Black Morels in Colorado

Updated: May 2

Natural black morels found in Colorado.
Natural black morels found in Colorado.

As the yellow morels move up in elevation and fruiting tapers off, it’s time to switch gears and environments and start hunting for black morels. You have two broad options when deciding where to start looking for black morels. Looking for burn morels in recently burned forests or looking for natural morels in still forested areas. We’ll go over burn morels in the next section. This one will focus on the naturals, but first, let’s go over the key traits of black morel and a little information about the species that fit into the black morel group. Some of this is a recap from this post about morel taxonomy.

About Black Morels

Unlike the one yellow morel species in Colorado, the black morel group encompasses a handful of different species. Based on the current taxonomic information available and my experiences collecting morels, our main species of natural morels in Colorado are Morchella brunnea and, to a lesser extent, M. snyderi. My information on this could very well become incorrect as we get more information from DNA sequencing, but until we do, I will stick with two as our main non-burn morel species. The other species of black morels all fall into the burn morel type, so we'll touch on those in another post!

These two species of black morels, and all black morels for that matter, will have the following traits. They will be completely hollow when cut in half vertically. Their cap attaches to the stem at or near the bottom edge of the cap. Occasionally, black morels can have a slight overhang at this attachment point. They will have tan to brown pits with darker-colored ridges. As a note, M. tomentosa, sometimes called the 'gray morel,' is considered a black morel and a burn morel, but as its name suggests, its ridges can have a grayish color to them.

Cross-section of a black morel.
Cross-section of a black morel.

When to Look for Black Morels

Like yellows, black morels will start to fruit once soil temperatures reach about 50 degrees. This is typically mid to late May in Colorado. My first good day for black morels in northern Colorado often occurs on Memorial Day Weekend. That said, there are a couple of ways to find out if black morels might be fruiting in your area instead of just guessing at timing and heading up into the woods with your thermometer in hand.

The first and easiest is to watch the internet. People like to show off their morels, and you can usually garner enough information from them to determine if you should be looking in your area. I include myself among the above people, so following my Instagram and Facebook pages is probably a good idea! Usually, these people will be more than happy to share a rough idea of location and general elevation, such as "Northern Colorado around 7,500ft."

The next way to figure out timing is to develop a Spidey sense of when to start looking in your area each year. This typically comes with experience and trial and error, but it will definitely develop after you become familiar with morels near you. So, even though I said you don’t have to, feel free to get out and start probing for soil temps and wandering the woods looking for morels!

An early bloomer! 50 degrees isn't the hard and fast rule, simply a guideline.

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Where to Look for Black Morels

Once you know that the black morels are fruiting, it’s time to get out and look for them! If you don’t already have an area that you know produces black morels, this can feel like an overwhelming task. Fortunately, We have millions of acres of public National Forest in Colorado, most of which could produce black morels.

Unlike the yellow morels, black morels have a broad range of habitats where they can fruit. I’ve found them in higher elevation riparian areas near yellow morels, ponderosa forests, aspen groves, wet and dark conifer forests, sunny and seemingly dry conifer forests, burns, around small spring water streams, and many more. The landscape black morel, Morchella importuna, can fruit in landscaped settings, though this is fairly rare in Colorado. The other difficulty of finding black morels is that they aren’t as limited by their habitat’s elevation range. Yellow morels will fruit in deciduous riparian areas, but those only go so far. Black morel habitat typically starts around 6,500 feet and goes all the way into the alpine around 12,000 feet! This allows you to find morels in September if you know where to look! I don’t have much success for fall morels because I’m more focused on the fall mushroom species, fishing, and hunting, but every year I see pictures of a few morels that people find while looking for chanterelles or boletes.

Rocky Mountain red-capped boletes, Boletus rubriceps
A favorite of fall mushroom hunters, the Rocky Mountain red-capped bolete.

Like I said, overwhelming, right? We can narrow things down, and you can add more habitats to your search areas as you become a more experienced morel hunter. The best, most consistent habitat for natural black morels, in my experience, is a mixed conifer forest from 7,000 to 9,500 feet. This habitat range typically has the most consistent fruiting from mid to late May into late June. Once July rolls around, I’m switching gears to the summer and fall mushrooms, so this range works really well for my mushroom schedule.

Now, you’re probably asking what I mean by mixed conifer. Most simply, that term means a forest that is comprised of a mixture of coniferous species that can also sometimes have aspens. More specifically, these forests will usually have a mixture of some or all of the following tree species: Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), limber pine (Pinus flexilis), Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens), and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). Aspen is obviously not a coniferous species but is often found and included in the ‘mixed conifer’ forest type. Remember, morels can also be found in the other forest types we have in Colorado. I have the most success in mixed.

Some other plant species you may see in these mixed forests include the calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa), kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), heartleaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia), Oregon grape (Mahonia repens), common juniper (Juniperus communis), pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens), and others! None of these are particularly important for finding black morels, though they will often fruit within the ubiquitous kinnikinnick. They’re just more plants to add to your mental database to confirm that you’re in the right areas. Plus, several of those species have edible or medicinal properties! You will also read that blooming arnica, pasqueflower, Oregon grape, and orchids are indicator species. You should know how I feel about those from the last section.

How to Find Black Morels

We’ve sufficiently covered the mixed conifer forest type, so how do we find morels there?! Well, I often joke about wandering around, but that’s a legitimate strategy once you’ve located the correct forest type. However, black morels, like yellow morels, can be pinpointed within their preferred habitat. Target the features that typically hold a little more moisture!

Features that I focus on when I’m searching for black morels in a new area are logs or branches lying on the forest floor, rocks, grasses, low spots, flats on ridges or slopes, or anything else that may hold a little extra moisture! These aren’t guaranteed to hold morels, nor will the morels only fruit with these features, but they can help you narrow down and focus on smaller search areas. The most important thing is to remember the mindset tips.

Go slow. When you find one, stop and search!

Black morels fruiting around branches, rocks, and grass. Moisture holding features!

The other factor I should mention when discussing montane mushroom species is the aspect. An aspect related to the slope of a hillside is the compass direction that the slope faces. In other words, if you're standing on a slope looking downhill, the compass direction you're facing is the aspect. So, why is this important? The aspect of a slope will affect the temperature, moisture, forest type, soil composition, and many other things. Have you ever noticed how the south-facing side of hills is drier and typically has fewer trees? That's because that side gets full sunlight for much of the day and has a higher average temperature and less moisture!

Mixed conifer forests will often be on the northern-facing aspects, so I usually start my hunt there and make changes if necessary. For instance, say the northern slope soil temperature reads 45 degrees. The southern side of that same hill may already be into the low 50s! Using aspect to your advantage can be a successful strategy for morels! Next time you're looking at a mountain range or even the foothills, pay attention to the differences in the aspects!

Another strategy you can use when you can't seem to find the morels is to switch up something about the habitat you're searching in. If you're in a more open mixed conifer forest that seems dry, try switching to a denser, darker forest that will hold moisture longer. Maybe try finding a little stream near you if that area hasn't gotten much rain recently. Or, if you've been hunting in an area that's predominantly coniferous trees, try moving to an area with more aspens. Changing one small factor of the environment that you're hunting in can often lead to success!

The final tip I will leave you with is this. Until you really develop your morel search image, you will get fooled by a lot of stuff when looking for black morels! Every little blackish pine cone, burnt nub, and darkened rock will look like a morel! Don't become disheartened after checking on your 100th pine cone, keep at it and eventually there will come a time when the pine cones and rocks stop fooling you. Those little burnt nubs are another story, though! The picture on the right is not a morel.

As always, please reach out with any questions, comments, suggestions, etc. I love talking about and teaching this stuff!

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2 commentaires

21 mai 2023

I hunt morels in eastern Oregon (the Blue Mountains) and I'm also a science teacher. I focus heavily on plant communities specifically prince's pine, kinnickinnic, and the calypso orchids as well as what I call "stump humps", those odd mounds in the forest that used to be stumps and logs. Anyhow, I was looking up info on a few plants and stumbled into your blog. Excellent stuff! At least in this one, I'll have to read some of your other posts. Thanks for the excellent information. I'll pass it along to people asking me how to find morels.


15 avr. 2022

thank you so much for this detailed article! It was just what I was looking for, so excited that foraging for morels is possible in Colorado!

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