Finding Yellow Morels in Colorado
Updated: May 2, 2022
We’ve made it through the basics! Now it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty of morels in Colorado. The specifics that will hopefully help guide you to finding more of these weirdly fascinating, and wildly captivating mushrooms! First up, yellow morels.
About Yellow Morels
Yellows or blondes are probably the most well-known and frequently hunted type of morel. They’re commonly found in the Southeast and Midwest in late winter and early spring as they move their way closer and closer to fruiting in Colorado.
Before we get into the details I want to do a very brief recap of traits. This will be handy for anyone who skipped The Basics Part 1. Several species of yellow morels show up in the areas I mentioned above, but as far as I can tell in Colorado we only have one, Morchella americana (this information could change as more DNA sequencing occurs on our Colorado fungi!). As with all morels, the yellow morels in Colorado will be completely hollow and have a cap that attaches to the stem at the bottom edge of the cap. The yellow morels, when compared to the black morels (next section!), will have yellow to tan pits with lighter colored ridges.
So, how the heck do we find them!? That’s exactly what I aim to teach you through the rest of this post. We’ll start with the when…
When to Look for Yellow Morels
Generally, yellow morels will start fruiting in mid to late April and can fruit until mid or late May and sometimes even early June in ideal conditions. More specifically, all morels tend to start fruiting when soil temperatures reach about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember the soil thermometer from the gear list in the last section? This is why it’s an important piece of gear to have with you! In addition to knowing soil temperature, knowing your elevation can also help you pinpoint when you'll have the best chance of success. However, I'm going to save that until a little later in the 'troubleshooting' part of this post.
That probably seems like a pretty simple answer, and I’ve kept it fairly general on purpose. Morels, other mushrooms, and even plants will often surprise you with what they decide to do. Occasionally people find morels in their front yards, or early, or before temperatures seem ‘correct’. There are always exceptions to the norm, however, the above parameters should cover the majority of when you’ll find yellow morels in Colorado.
Where you’ll find them is also fairly simple if you don’t get into the minutia: low elevation riparian areas. If that was all you knew about yellow morels and you just wandered the river-lands, you would eventually find a morel. Luckily for you, I like getting more detailed than that!
Where to Look for Yellow Morels
Riparian is defined as “relating to or situated on the banks of a river”. Simply, the area around a river, stream, creek, etc. As a note, I include the floodplain in my definition of riparian. If you open a satellite map of the Foothills and zoom in on any of the major rivers you can very obviously tell where the river-loving plant life stops, either naturally or in many cases unnaturally where it butts up to urban development. This would be the riparian area and your starting place for yellow morels!
There are no specific plants that morels associate within Colorado, so I won’t go into details on plant species, but there are several that you should be familiar with because they can help you locate the right habitats for yellow morels. However, before we get into those I want to talk about a term that you’ll see thrown around when people are talking about Colorado morels. That term is ‘indicator plant’ or ‘indicator species’.
If you’ve listened to the morel podcast I recorded with Field to Table Outdoors (no longer available) then you’ll already know that I’m not a huge fan of that term. In my experience, beginners will often think ‘indicator’ suggests ‘association’ and get stuck on looking for certain ‘indicator species’ because they think that will magically lead them to the morels. In actuality, an ‘indicator species’ will be indicating one or two things: timing and/or habitat. The other issue with that term is that often people think of them as sure things, which is not the case at all. Indicators merely suggest that you might be on the right track… maybe. My suggestion is to be familiar with some of the common ones but take them for what they are. None of the ‘indicator species’ you’ll find floating around online for Colorado morels will guarantee your success.
Now that we have that out of the way let’s talk about habitats and plants that you should be looking for when trying to find yellow morels! Not all riparian habitats are created equal, and knowing what to focus on can help you narrow down your search area immensely. The first two features I look for are mature cottonwoods and grass. I have never found a yellow morel in Colorado that was not near one or both of those. You will often read about how narrowleaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia) is the species to look for, but in my experience, the type of cottonwood hasn’t been a large factor, as long as one of the cottonwood species is around it is probably decent morel habitat. Other species of cottonwoods that you will find in Colorado include plains (P. deltoides), and lanceleaf (P. acuminata). We also have a large number of hybrid cottonwoods that were planted as landscape, shelterbelt, or windbreak trees, but these aren’t usually found in riparian areas. As for the specific grass species… I don’t know them, nor do I think they’re important, yellow morels just seem to like grass!
Other tree species that you may see in this habitat include boxelder (Acer negundo), elms (Ulmus spp.), ash (Fraxinus spp.), and plums and cherries (Prunus spp.).
Knowing these species isn’t necessary to have success in finding morels, but it never hurts to know more about the surrounding landscape. Plus some of them can provide other goods to forage like the plums, cherries, and elms! You will also likely come across some wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) and oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus spp.) if you keep your eyes peeled! Riparian habitats are lush places full of wild food, but I will save that for another post.
***Important Note: Poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans, can also commonly be found in the same habitat. Be familiar with this plant and avoid it at all costs!
How to Find Yellow Morels
By now you've probably already had a few spots come to mind that might be good areas to hunt for morels. Maybe you drive by a grassy cottonwood forest on your way to work or walk your dog along a river trail. Either way, there are a lot of areas that match the general habitat that I've described and some of them can be fairly vast! So, how do you find the morels that may be there aside from just wandering around hoping to stumble on them? I have a few tactics and 'troubleshooting' tips that have been successful for me in the past that I will detail next. Don't forget to use the 'morel mindset' tips that I go over in The Basics - Part 2!
Walking through a large, mature stand of cottonwoods in a floodplain can be a little overwhelming. It will likely feel like there's no chance of you ever finding a morel in the mess of trees, logs, grasses, dead leaves, and everything else. However, you can pinpoint some areas within the sea of grass and dead leaves that will be more likely to hold morels. The first few features I gravitate towards are piles of dead branches, logs, and low spots within the terrain. All of these hold a little more water than the surrounding environments and create small micro-climates that morels seem to prefer. Low spots can often be less grassy and a little easier to search for morels in, though that's not saying much, there are still plenty of other hiding spots for them! Remember, go slow!
My next pinpointing suggestion is if the above doesn't work for you or isn't applicable; look for dead cottonwoods. Morels seem to like "disturbance events", fires, trees dying, floods, etc. I've heard a couple of stories from people who cut down cottonwoods in their yards and had dozens or even hundreds of morels fruit soon after. That said, please don't go cut down your landscape trees!
Cottonwoods are fast-growing trees, and because of this they regularly shed branches or die. These events can cause morels to fruit so if you see any dead trees during your hunt it's worth taking a look around them! Keep your eyes out for oysters as well.
Now, if you still seem to be having some trouble finding morels it may be time to start "troubleshooting". By this, I simply mean assessing the environmental conditions and other information available to make sure that you're hunting in the right area!
The first factor to check is going to be soil temperature, as mentioned previously. If the soil is below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it is likely too early in that spot. Your options are to wait a few days for the soil to warm up assuming nightly temperatures are consistently above freezing, or to move to an area that is lower in elevation or gets more sun. If your thermometer is reading around 60 degrees, then you may need to consider heading up a little bit in elevation if possible. Speaking of elevations, let's talk about a couple of other ways to consider elevation when it comes to morels.
The first is to look online, there are plenty of resources and pages full of people sharing their hauls of morels, and they will often willingly give you an estimation of their elevation. Using this information you can deduce where you should start your hunt. If they were at 5000 feet and it's been 5 days you may consider moving a little higher, especially if it's been dry in your area.
The next way you can use elevation to your advantage only works if you've found some morels already. Examine those morels. Are they fresh, plump, not dried out? You're probably in the right elevation. On the other hand, they might be quite large with double-walled stems, or maybe they're a bit dried out with crispy ridges. These would both indicate that I need to think about moving up in elevation a little bit.
Finally, if you've tried everything I've suggested so far and still aren't having any luck my first tip would be not to give up! Anyone can find morels if they want to. Second, try a different area. Sometimes, even seemingly perfect spots won't have morels. Give it some time and I'm confident you can be a successful morel hunter!
Next up will be the black morels! I will likely split them up into two different sections: 'Natural' and 'Burn'. Until then and as always, feel free to get in touch with any questions, comments, or suggestions.
Continue learning Colorado morels with the next post in the series:
Finding Black Morels in Colorado