Yes, Minnesota has an official state mushroom: and it's a rare delicacy that has sparked a nationwide hobby for dedicated foragers.
Morel mushrooms typically can be found throughout the state in late April and May. But because they only appear for a few weeks out of the year and are nearly impossible to grow or farm indoors, morels and their earthy, nutty flavor are highly desirable to hunters and retailers and fetch a high price; you’ll find them in stores for around $59.99 per pound.
Many hunt the elusive mushrooms, which have a spongy, cone shaped cap and can range from pinky to softball sized, for their own kitchen: they’re delicious sautéed in butter, ground into a concentrated powder added to dishes like mushroom risotto, or dehydrated and used as a topping.
Others find morels to sell to local grocery stores and restaurants. Though Lakewinds Food Co-op in Chanhassen now requires their sellers to be licensed (it ensures they were foraged legally and the seller has training on identification), they previously bought from casual hunters for years and paid $40 a pound, said produce buyer Erik Baker.
No matter the use, searching for morels can be a fun way to get outdoors and enjoy the thrill of the hunt, with an added, delicious bonus.
There are plenty of old wives' tales about the perfect growing weather, but it really comes down to temperature and moisture — the ground should be warm and the soil moist, said Minnesota Master Naturalist Amy Rager, who is also the state's program director has hunted morels for years.
With the ever-changing Minnesota weather, it’s tough to put an exact time frame on when they’ll appear, but a good way to stay informed is checking neighboring states’ morel hunting Facebook groups. If they’re popping up in northern Iowa, expect them in Minnesota within a few weeks. Others will share what county they’ve found morels in, but don’t expect any other details: “You never, ever give up your secret spots,” Rager said.
With an entire state’s worth of woods, where do you start? Rager shares her expert advice.
Ensure you’re on public land that allows foraging. Minnesota state lands allow visitors to collect small amounts of berries, mushrooms or cones for personal use, but if you intend to collect a large amount for yourself or to sell, you’ll have to obtain a permit from the Department of National Resources.
Familiarize yourself with the look. Though they’re not as common in Minnesota, “false morels” also have a brain-like cap and are easy to confuse with real morels. Remember that real morels are hollow inside and a yellow to brown color, while false morels are solid and often look reddish. As with all mushrooms, when in doubt, throw it out.
Check around dead trees. Mushrooms are a fungus and it's their job to help plants decay and decompose. Elms are the way to go, but they have to be “the right amount of dead," with the bark still falling off the tree. (Ash, poplar and aspen trees are another common location.) If you find one spot, there are likely more nearby, so keep looking.
While you’re hunting, look for other edible plants. Dandelions and ramps (wild leeks) can be found in similar environments — dandelion greens make good salad additions, the flowers can be made into fritters, and you can harvest the ramp bulb or sauté the leaves. Try the edible bright orange and yellow mushroom “chicken of the woods,” which some say does taste like chicken.
Once you’ve found morels, pinch or cut the stem right above the soil. Because they grow by spores, you should haul them out in a mesh bag so they’re dropping more spores as you carry them through the forest. They don’t store well, so eat or dehydrate them within a few days of harvesting for the best flavor.
Plan to be out for a while, dress appropriately, bring a guide (Rager suggests The U.S. National Forest Service’s free PDF “Field guide to common macrofungi in eastern forests and their ecosystem functions”) and enjoy the thrill of the hunt.
“Sometimes it’s a total bust, but sometimes you hit the motherlode,” Rager said.