Finding Black Morels in Colorado
Updated: May 23, 2021
As the yellow morels start to move up in elevation and fruiting tapers off it’s time to switch gears and environments, and start hunting for black morels. When deciding on where to start looking for black morels you have two broad options; 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 be focused on the naturals, but first, let’s go over the key traits for black morels and a little bit of information about the species that fit into the black morel group. Some of this is recap from The Basics - Part 1.
About Black Morels
Unlike the single yellow morel species in Colorado, the black morel group encompasses a handful of different species. As far as I can tell, based on the current taxonomic information that's 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 in the future as we get more information from DNA sequencing, but until we do I'm going to stick with two as our main non-burn morel species (I will update this if I learn more). The other species of black morels all fall into the 'burn' morel type so we'll touch on those in the next 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, and 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, it's ridges can have a grayish color to them.
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. Often my first really good day for black morels in northern Colorado occurs on Memorial Day Weekend. That said, there are a couple 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 figure out if you should be looking in your area. I include myself in 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 7500ft".
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!
Where to Look for Black Morels
Once you have an idea 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. We are fortunate to have millions of acres of public National Forest in Colorado and a majority of this forest has the potential to produce black morels. But don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you with just that!
Unlike the yellow morels, black morels have a broad range of habitat that they can fruit in. 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. There’s even a species (Morchella rufobrunnea) that can fruit in landscaped settings, though this is fairly rare in Colorado. The other difficult aspect 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 7,000 feet and go all the way into alpine! This gives you the opportunity to find morels into 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. Click the links to read the Forage Weekly Blog posts for these species!
Like I said, overwhelming, right? Again, don’t worry! We can narrow things down and you can choose to 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 ‘mixed conifer’ from 7000 to 9500 feet. This habitat range will typically have 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 the heck I mean by ‘mixed conifer’. Most simply, that term just 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 fruit in the other forest types we have in Colorado, I just have the most success in mixed.
Some other plants species you may see in these mixed forests include the calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa), kinnikinnick aka bearberry (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 actually 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
I think we’ve sufficiently covered the mixed conifer forest type, so how do we find morels there?! Well, I often make jokes about wandering around, but that’s actually a legitimate strategy once you’ve located the correct forest type. However, like yellow morels, black morels can be pin pointed within their preferred habitat, and also like yellow morels, those features are typically ones that hold a little more moisture than the other areas! Seems like a theme…
Features that I focus on when I’m searching for black morels in a new area are logs or branches laying 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 I went over in The Basics - Part 2! Go. Slow. When you find one, stop and search!
The other factor I should mentioned when talking about montane mushrooms species is 'aspect'. Aspect in relation to the slope of a hillside is the compass direction that slope is facing. In other words, if you're standing on a slope looking down hill, 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 are drier and typically have less trees? That's because that side gets full sunlight for much of the day, and has a higher average temperature and thus less moisture!
Mixed conifer forests will often be on the northern 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 very 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 just 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 to be sort of dry, try switching to a denser, darker forest that will hold the moisture a little 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 a 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!