Eastern Burn Morels are a Real Thing

Eastern Burn Morels

Morel hunters often want to know if burn morels grow in the Eastern US. As Western hunters, we usually say NOPE! However, there are a few scientifically documented instances where burn morel species were found east of the Rockies. With ears on the ground all the time, I have also heard about several occurrences where pickers harvested large quantities of burn morels from first-year burns in the Upper Midwest and Appalachia. 

I’d like to start this article by telling the story of Pat Mitchell and his 13 year old son, Levi. Both are deeply involved with the Blue Ridge Mycological Association and are members of the North American Mycological Association (NAMA). Levi set out a few weeks ago to look for the Northern fungus farming ant; specifically he wanted to confirm actual colonies in a forest fire burn. In his search for these ants, he stumbled into morels… LOTS of morels — the first documented example of burn morels in Virginia! Of course he called his dad who proceeded to visit the fire several times over a multi-week period. I’m excited to share their experience with you!

Let’s talk about Levi & Pat’s findings and discuss how they might apply to you. Please visit Levi’s iNaturalist post as well to learn more!

First Year Burns

Like most burn morel hunters, Pat & Levi’s finds were in a fire from the previous summer – a first year fire. While burns that are 2 or 3 years old can certainly produce, the most reliable results this year, are from last year’s fires. You will never find burn morels in a burn scar the same year as the fire! (Never is not quite accurate – it did happen once in Arizona, when the ground froze in September (simulating winter), and then warmed back up, (simulating spring)). I would encourage Eastern burn morel hunters to focus on 1st year fires to maximize your odds.

The Why

We all want to know the mystery behind burn morels – WHY do they fruit predominantly west of the Rockies? Maybe they are centralized in the West simply because of our diverse and wide-spread conifer forests? Maybe they thrive in the West because forest fires were a normal and cyclical part of the forest ecosystem of the West? The fact that burn morels DO EXIST in the East only adds to their mystery and appeal. 

Likewise, it is a mystery why these morel species fruit only after a burn. Maybe they are heat resistant and thrive after the heat of the fire wipes out competing organisms? Maybe these morels are better adapted to utilize all the minerals and nutrients that flood the soils after a burn? It seems to me that these mushrooms live dormant in the tree roots for 10s or 100s of years before the perfect storm (a fire) causes them to spring forth. They have certainly carved out their niche in nature! 

Trees Inform Where to Hunt

Tree species are an important consideration for burn morels. This is where the Midwestern and Eastern morel hunter must throw out their conventional wisdom of elms, ash, tulips, apples and other deciduous trees! Eastern burn morels seem to be exclusive to conifer trees, especially favoring pine.

Let’s look at areas based on tree types. I have seen numerous reports of burn morels in jack pines (Pinus banksiana) in the Upper Midwest including within the well documented Duck Lake Fire (2012) in Michigan. In 2016, a fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park also produced burn morels with table mountain pine (Pinus pungens) and rhododendron. In 1991 they were found in a Minnesota burn with jack pine and black spruce (Picea mariana). However, don’t rule out other pine species during your hunt (see Massachusetts white pine finds below).

  • Tennessee – table mountain pine
  • Virginia – table mountain pine
  • Michigan – jack pine
  • Minnesota – jack pine (and black spruce)
  • Ontario – unknown trees
  • Massachusetts – white pine

Pat and Levi have been finding the Virginia burn morels with table mountain pines (Pinus pungens) in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Using our ‘forest type’ and ‘tree species’ maps (members only, included with our burn morel hunting maps), which offer tree overlays on last years burns, I see the following when looking at the area where Pat and Levi found their morels (click thumbnails to view more of the image below):

Table Mountain Pine

Aside from Pat and Levi’s find, there was one other well documented find in the Appalachians. Here is a map of Table Mountain Pine:

table mountain pine showing in lime green, map from http://bonap.org/

Jack Pine

Jack pine were at the heart of Northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula finds. As you can see in the map below, Jack pines are predominantly located in the Upper Midwest.

jack pine map from Bonap.org. Showing in lime green and yellow.

White Pine, Mixed Pine and other Pines

With only one example documented, White Pine (Pinus strobus) may be an outlier but it is worth exploring. Any Pinus species in the east seem possible, especially considering burn morels have been found with Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) in the West. 

Another Notable Find in Massachusetts

On May 16th, 2023 Chris Hafford found approximately 5 lbs of morels in a first year burn north of Boston in the Danver’s area. He was very surprised to find them of course. Fortunately for all of us, Chris shared his finds on NAMA’s Facebook Group as well as documenting on iNaturalist and MushroomObserver. He also got samples of these mushrooms DNA tested at nearby University of New Hampshire by Dr. Christopher Neefus and also at North Spore in Portland, Maine. Both tests confirmed his morels were indeed a burn species: Morchella exuberans. You can see the DNA details at Genbank.

Chris’s morels were also found in pines, but in this case white pines. Chris noted that these morels had 3 or distinct flushes and he picked them (in diminishing quantities) for nearly a month. Here are more pictures:

Using the Modern Forager tree species map, with 2022 & 2023 burn perimeter layered in, you can easily see fires in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia & Pennsylvania. As you research fires in your area, I recommend you focus on pine, with emphasis on Jack pine and Table Mountain pine.

Ready to jump in? Modern Forager burn morel maps contain burn perimeters for the entire Continental US (2022 & 2023 burns).

Eastern Burn Morel Species – Morchella exuberans

As I’ve outlined in another blog post, Understanding Burn Morels, there are 5 species of Morchella that either exclusively fruit after burns, or mostly fruit after burns. The only species of the five that that has been found in Eastern and Midwestern burns is Morchella exuberans aka, Mel-9 on iNaturalist. This type of morel is notoriously difficult to identify without a DNA test. If you have a microscope, you can check for capitate acroparaphyses on the sterile ridges of its cap. For the rest of us amateurs taking a guess at this species, we look for a chambered stem often with a double wall present.  The finds referenced above in Tennessee, Michigan and Massachussets all sequecned out to be M. exuberans.

Here are some images. Note: These images are NOT mine, Pat’s or Chris’s – they are taken from iNaturalist, from the three (yes, only three) examples of Morchella exuberans that have been DNA tested on that platform.

Seasonality

Generally, Western burn morels tend to pop up after their natural brethren. Pat was shocked at how much later in the season the burn morels were popping compared to the local natural morels. In the Western US, hunters usually focus on natural morels and disturbance morels in April and early May before transitioning to burn morels in mid May. Most Easterners are surprised by how late in the season we pick burn morels out west. Depending on the rains, July can be a fantastic month — we have even harvested huge quantities in mid-August at higher elevations in Colorado. That said, I don’t think the Eastern scene will go that late in the summer – but it seems like the intrepid burn morel hunter should start looking as the natural morel season begins to wane. 

Soil Temperatures

Morel hunters love to check soil temperatures and compare notes. It’s worth pointing out that soil temps fluctuate radically based on the time of day, how deep you measure the soil, if it received direct sunlight, or if it has rained recently. All that said, there is some very compelling evidence that soil temperatures are the best predictor of morels you have. Read about it on the NAMA website – and think about becoming a NAMA member while you are over there!

The graph below shows the average daily soil temperatures in the area of the burn that Pat and Levi hunted. They found their first mushrooms on 4/14 and we all think the rains that happened on 4/2 helped trigger them. Clearly as the soil temperature fluctuated between the mid 50s and up to the low 70s, the mushrooms are thrived and flushed multiple times. Pat found small pins, fresh mushrooms and older mushrooms all together over a 3 week period.  

The burn morels started pinning and popping as the soil warmed up after the hard rain on 4/5 and the warm rain on 4/11. By 4/20 there were fully mature specimens as well as younger fresher pins. We think that a cold & heavy rain is a precursor of a big harvest that can continue for 2-4 weeks as the soil warms up. But, it seems like the soil temp needs to be in the 55 to 65 range go get the first flush going.

A driver of higher soil temperatures, southern exposures contained the oldest, most mature mushrooms in the Virginia fire. Northern exposures typically run 2 weeks behind the southern exposures, with lots of small pins and less mature fruiting bodies. It is probably worth pointing out that as you scout a burn, you should stay on the southern side in the early season, and the northern side later in the season. Likewise with moisture, southern exposures dry up quicker and can be less forgiving after two weeks with no rain. Pat noted his morels favored open-dirt sites as well as growth near boulders. Maybe his finds were craving the warmth of sunny spots and also spots where the residual heat of boulders kept the soil warm into the evening?

I looked up the moisture in Chris Hafford’s Massachusett’s find too, and found that there was a big rain 2 weeks before the first flush. The soil dried out for two weeks and also got into the 55F – 65F range for the fruiting to start.

This shows how the soil temp had to get up above 55 to start triggering the first flush.

Precipitation and Moisture

Morels have very complex relationships with precipitation and soil moisture. While it is obvious that morels need good moisture to fruit, it is not always clear how much. Also not clear, is how a period of drying weather can impact them. It seems that a weekly rain of 1″ or more, with drying in between each rain can produce the most spectacular flushes. It is also clear that areas with very heavy moisture (and no drying) don’t fruit well, as coastal morel hunters well know. The soil moisture graph below shows data from the Virginia burn:

The morels really like the slowly declining moisture level. But, as we get to the end of the graph, it is probably getting too low.

Too much rain can create two specific problems for the burn morel hunter:

  1. Ash splash happens when a heavy rains falls on burn morels that are already fruited. The rain causes the ash to splash up on to the mushroom, potentially creating grit and flavor profile problems. We avoid picking these! Some folks complain that burn morels taste ashy, gritty, or even smokey. Maybe because they are picking these specimens. 
  2. Decomposition happens when mature mushrooms get rained on. If that mature mushroom does NOT get rained on, it can age gracefully for a week or two even as additional flushes fruit around it. Beware the old mushroom found after heavy rains, it gets rotten fast. Your nose will tell you if it is still good to eat!

rain fall totals

While it’s hard to get accurate rainfall totals for random places out in the woods, we rely on  Modern Forager precipitation maps (included with burn morels maps) to gauge the last 6 weeks of rainfall. Most of the good weather maps out there are built to forecast the weather, or tell you about today. Our precipitation maps show the last 1 day, 3 day, or 7 day period as well as the rainfall totals for each week going back six weeks. I use this tool to look for the best weather patterns. Ultimately, I don’t really care if it rained today or will rain next week, I’d like to see what the patterns looked like over the last 6 weeks when it comes to burn morels. Frankly, I use this tool when deciding where to go hunting within an hour radius of my house in Wisconsin as well – it’s crazy how patchwork rain patterns can be in the Midwest.

Conclusion

Yes, you can find burn morels east of the Rockies. Prospective hunters should focus on first year burned areas with pine trees, especially Table Mountain Pine and Jack pine, with adequate precipitation and average ground temps above 55F for at least 7-10 days. The Appalachians and areas of the Upper Midwest are the most likely spots to find them if history is any indicator. Finally, when you do go looking, consider going a bit later in the season, probably after the local natural morels have just had their last flush.  

A huge thank you to Pat and Levi Mitchell and Chris Hafford for sharing their stories with us!

Resources:

First report of the post-fire morel, Morchella exuberans , in eastern North America

Table Mountain Pine Map

Jack Pine Map

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