Image by Thomas Roehl used with permission.

On my first date with my now partner, I surprised him with a bouquet of cultivated mushrooms: King Oysters (Pleurotus eryngii), Enokis (Flammulina velutipes), and brown Buna-Shemejis (Hypsizygus tessellatus), all purchased from an Asian supermarket in Falls Church, Virginia. On our first meeting, he had earnestly mentioned wanting to try my foraged wild mushrooms (Wood Blewitts, Clitocybe nuda). I figured it was best that we start slow, with him learning about the risks and responsibilities involved.

My quest to find my own fungi (pun intended) had started six years ago, when I joined a local mycological society in London. Throughout my time in London, one type of mushroom eluded me: The true morel (Morchella genus), a collection of prized edible mushrooms known for their meaty texture and nutty taste.

Since morel season is upon us—amidst a warm spell and blooming dogwoods and lilacs—I set out to learn more about this elusive mushroom. It is one of the few edible mushrooms that grow in the spring, and believe it or not, it's possible to find them in an urban environment. Morels are also considered one of the tastiest, along with Porcinis, Chanterelles, Matsutake, and Truffles.

If you're interested in urban foraging in the Washington region, this post will help you get started. A quick disclaimer though: Eating wild plants and mushrooms can be risky. It's also illegal to forage in some places. If you're not an experienced forager, it's best to go with a guide.

First, find a foraging group or guide

If you’re a beginner or new to an area, joining a local mycological society and going on their organized forays is sure proof way to locate and learn about some of the millions of species of fungi. If you're interested in other plants and herbs around DC, you can head into the woods (or alleys) with foraging guide Matt Cohen of Matt’s Habitats, Holly Poole-Kavana of Little Red Bird Botanicals, or Bill Schindler at Hill Center. If you're looking for something more high-end, go out with DC chef Drew Adams of Bourbon Steak. Closer to Baltimore, Charm City Farms has a variety of foraging workshops, and there's a mushroom foraging group in Reston as well.

According to Thomas Roehl, Newsletter Editor and Board Member with the Mycological Society of Washington DC, “Foray leaders have so much knowledge about locations, conditions, seasonality, lookalikes, and spotting tips. You might even get to see a morel or a lookalike, which is one of the best ways to learn to find and identify them.”

Members of the The Mycological Association of Washington, DC hunt for morels. Image by Thomas Roehl used with permission.

While morels are often considered a beginner-friendly mushroom to identify, those unfamiliar with foraging might mistake it for the “false morel” (Gyromitra esculenta), a poisonous variety. “False morels contain gyromitrin, which turns into monomethylhydrazine (MMH) inside your body. MMH is toxic, potentially lethal, and is used as rocket fuel by NASA,” says Roehl.

Even if you're certain you've identified an edible mushrooms, It's important to be aware that the conditions in which they grow may be different, and that can impact the mushroom. “Mushrooms are like sponges: they soak up everything around them. You really don’t want to eat mushrooms in areas known to be toxic, such as places subject to severe flooding or areas around Chernobyl, for example,” says Roehl.

Mitch Fournet, a foray leader with the society, adds: “Old apple orchards used to have a lot of arsenic sprayed on them. This tends to stay there even after a long time. Also, old graveyards: the embalming process used to use different chemicals, arsenic included, and it can stick around.”

Following the clues to find morels

Scientifically, we know very little about fungi. Much of this with the fact that what we consider “mushrooms” are simply the fruiting bodies above a vast underground network of mycelium. While there are indicators as to when the fruiting bodies of fungi will appear, there’s always an element of suspense and surprise.

With morels, scientists do not know exactly why they fruit in the spring. According to Roehl, “One theory holds that they spend their winter in potato-like clump of cells called a 'sclerotium.' Come spring, the sclerotium reactivates and decides whether it wants to make mushrooms. This decision has something to do with the fungus' interactions with plants. Morels are thought to form beneficial associations with certain tree roots called 'mycorrhizas.'”

Some clues that foragers use to find morels include identifying trees that they like to grow near, such as elm, oak, and poplar. (If you're interested in learning more about local trees, check out Casey Trees, a DC-based nonprofit that protects the local tree canopy and also offers classes, workshops, and urban forestry fellowships.)

Alas, in pursuit of finding some morels for this story, my trip to a park thick with old tulip poplars did not produce any morels. Perhaps the weather wasn’t warm enough, the soil isn’t right, it hadn’t been wet enough, or someone had come before me and picked them all. It’s hard to say.

Harvesting mushrooms with tender care (and not getting in trouble!)

If you’re lucky enough to come across morels, make sure you look the rules of the park first to see if you are allowed to pick them. For instance, it’s illegal to pick mushrooms in Rock Creek Park and carries a fine of $300.

According to William Needham, president of the society, “Where you can forage for morels and other mushrooms is very much a local jurisdictional issue. Some places are more restrictive, while others allow it. Shenandoah, in their regulations, allows one gallon of morels and one quart of other mushrooms. So it really depends on each park. City parks generally are more restrictive, given the number of people who frequent them.”

Yellow morels have light ridges and darker pits. Image by Thomas Roehl used with permission.

In addition, while picking mushrooms doesn’t directly harm them (like it does wildflowers for instance), Needham recommends cutting mushrooms at the base to ensure that the mycelium network underground do not get disrupted. Another member suggests that it’s best to let very young mushrooms to grow, for them to adequately produce their spores.

Old mushrooms should also be left alone, if simply because they are past their prime and might be full of bugs. Finally, as mushrooms grow by spreading their spores, the society also suggests walking around with a mesh bag to help spread the spores.

Raw morels can cause an upset stomach, so two members of the mycological society suggest cooking them in a good cream sauce and pairing this dish with beef or crab. When it doubt, mushrooms cooked with garlic in oil or butter with a dash of salt and pepper never go wrong.

The morel lesson

Despite my failures at finding morels this past weekend as well as over the past six years (to be fair, I haven’t been persistent), there’s room for optimism. According to Needham, “Last season was pretty bad for morels, great for everything else. Many things operate in cycles…so let’s just say it’s better to follow from a bad year.”

The quest for finding and learning about morels and other edible things in the world around us brings joy in and of itself. Along with the wonder of walks along meadows and in woodlands, if you're successful, there's the thrill of giving a potential love a bouquet of hand-picked mushrooms.

This article is part of the GGWash Urbanist Journalism Fellowship, made possible in part by the Island Press Urban Resilience Project and the Meyer Foundation.

ThienVinh Nguyen is an Urbanist Journalism Fellow with Greater Greater Washington. Vietnamese-born, California-grown, ThienVinh resides in the verdant neighborhood of Deanwood. She focuses on stories about civic engagement, urban development and planning issues that are simultaneously critical and hopeful. ThienVinh holds degrees from UCLA, Columbia University, and the University of London (UCL).