How to Find Buckets of Morels (how to identify elm trees!)
Updated: May 3, 2021
When hunting for morel (morchella esculenta)--and many of the most edible and delectable wild mushrooms--the best thing to do is counter intuitive: look up. Morels, like chanterelles, black trumpets, porcini, hedgehogs, and many other mushrooms, have mycorrhizal relationships with specific types of trees (you can read more on this here). A mycorrhizal relationship is essentially a symbiotic relationship where the trees roots and the fungi’s mycelium (underground body, like roots) share resources to survive. Typically, here in the midwest, this relationship is between morels and elms (ulmus americana, ulmus rubra, or ulmus thomasii). There is reason to believe morels also grow symbiotically with ash trees, cottonwoods, and sycamores, further south. And these are for yellow or gray morels. Black morels (morchella elata) typically grow in association with even stands of aspen trees. In my experience, however, when hunting for yellow morels, the biggest favor you can do for yourself is number one: know when to start looking (more on that here) and number two (the focus of this article) is to learn how to successfully identify elm trees.
Identification of Live Elm Trees
Let’s start with a few pointers on identifying a live elm. Quick caveat though: morels will not be found nearby live elms. This is because the morel mycelium is happy with its partner tree. Once the elm dies, and the mycelium is like “oh snap! We need a new place to live!” then the mycelium will fruit morel mushrooms above ground so that its spores can find a new tree nearby to help it survive. Nonetheless, it is still extremely helpful to know how to identify a live elm tree and here’s why: if you can’t identify a live elm tree, you’ll never be able to identify a dead one. Once a tree dies, it loses its leaves and many of its outer branches, it has no buds and eventually it has no bark. Each one of these things is a characteristic for tree ID. So as a tree decays more and more, it loses its individuality and rejoins the great warm embrace of the Earth and becomes just “nature”. Kind of like the opposite of Fight Club. In death, we have no names!
Okay, back to identifying a live elm, you should really be looking for two key identifiers: leaves and branching patterns. Leaves alone should be enough--find one on a low branch. Elms have simple, unlobed (also called “Entire”), serrated, offset leaves. Let’s break that down. Simple means it has just one leaf per stem. The alternative to simple is a compound leaf where a leaf stem has multiple leaflets on them (think of Poison Ivy). Unlobed means that the leaf is a very basic rounded shape. A “lobe” is almost like a section on a leaf. If your hand were a leaf, each finger would be one lobe. Think of the maple leaf on a Canadian flag: it has three obvious lobes (even though most sugar maple leaves are considered to have five lobes).
Elm leaves do not have these lobes--if your hand were an elm leaf, you would have no fingers, just your palm. With that said, the leaf does have a serrated edge. Like a bread knife or a handsaw. Serrations are too small to be considered lobes. Lastly, the “offset leaf” means the leaf is asymmetrical. The leaf is slightly larger on one side of the stem than on the other even though they look very similar.
Next attribute is the twigs: they have buds (or leaves) depending on what time of year it is that are arranged in alternating patterns. This means that if you look at the end of an elm branch there will be a growth (leaf, bud, or branch) on the left, then go up about a few inches and there will be a growth on the right then go up a few more inches and there is one on the left. If you look at the youngest branches on the top of the edge of the tree, you’ll see this left, right, left right pattern and it almost looks like the branch forms a kind of zipper. This is a good way to rule out ash and maple trees which can sometimes be mistaken for elms. Ash and maple trees both have opposite arrangements. This means that a leaf or bud or branch will grow out of the left and right side of the branch at the same point simultaneously. Go up a few inches and then there’s two more leaves or buds or branches growing out of both the left and the right simultaneously.
Another attribute to look out for on the branches are the elm leaf pods. Often you can find these scattered on the ground nearby elms but they are small discs, forked open on one end, with a seed right in the center. Maples have the well known helicopters, oaks make acorns, ash trees have lances, Cottonwood and aspens have fluffy caterpillar looking things, and elms have these. Keep an eye out.
One last feature that elms often, but don’t always have, are buttresses at the bottom of the trunk. Typically, about four feet from the bottom of the tree a cylindrical bulge will begin to stick out further from the rest of the trunk. This extends to the ground where it reaches out away from the tree almost like it is the beginning of a root. I picture someone who is clenching their teeth and the way the tendons kind of stick out at the base of their neck as similar to the buttressing at the base of an elm tree.
How to Identify a Dead Elm
These next two attributes are very important for both live and dead elms. The first is overall tree shape. This is going to be easier to spot in the winter time, when the leaves do not obscure your view. Elm trees tend to have a V almost right in the middle of the trunk. This is typically pretty symmetrical, such that each arm off the V is almost like it’s own new trunk. The elm will very gracefully go from a thick trunk to very tiny little branches on the perimeter of its canopy. Cottonwoods also do this but cottonwoods tend to have massive cumbersome branches, whereas elms typically have slender more graceful branches. The overall shape of the tree is often like a vase and it also sometimes presents as a kind of upside down “witch’s broom”. This witch's broom shape is perhaps one of the key identifiers that a lot of folks use to describe what to look for.
The other attribute that is very helpful for IDing both live and dead elms is the bark. Now I say this last because identifying any tree based on bark alone is very difficult. Elms are particularly difficult because their bark can really range. I’ve seen elms with really big deep furrows (closer to what a Cottonwood looks like) and I’ve seen elms with really light, flaky bark (closer to what a shagbark hickory looks like). Generally speaking, elms have a pale grey bark that forms cross hatching that is not as tight as Ash trees and is not as deeply furrowed. Elm bark is fairly solid but sometimes has strips of bark that are peeling or flaking off a little bit. A younger tree will have more flaky looking bark whereas a larger older tree will have thicker more deeply ridged bark. Sometimes especially on younger trees the bark actually reddish or almost a pale orange. Sometimes it’s helpful to know what elm bark is not. Elm bark is not really flaky, it’s not deeply furrowed, it’s not dark brown or blackish, it’s not smooth, it’s not white. It really is kind of the goldilocks of tree bark. It’s never too much or too little of something, always kind of in between.
A final attribute of many elms that have died from Dutch Elm’s disease is left behind by the European Elm Bark Borer/Beetle (EEBB). This pest will burrow into the bark and attack the outer layers of the sapwood. These beetles will often carry spores of the fungi known as Dutch Elm’s disease, spreading the fungal infection to more and more trees. As the trees die of Dutch Elm’s disease, and their bark starts to peel away, the characteristic grooves in the sapwood from the EEBB can be seen. Typically it consists of many close together very thin grooves that fan outwards as the beetles grow from larvae to adult size and eat away at more of the tree.
Putting it all Together to Find Morels
So okay, now you can ID live elms and dead elms. You might be wondering: how the heck do I find mushrooms with that information?! As discussed above, dead elms will help you find morels. Now if you are in a forest where there are no live elm trees, it is very unlikely that you will find any dead elm trees. So look for parts of the forest where there are a lot of live elm trees.
Typically, elms reside along streams, near to wetlands or around disturbed soils such as farmlands. If you are in an upland forest with predominantly oak canopy, as is very common here in Minnesota, you’re not likely to find many elms. Other trees you are likely to find nearby elms are box elder, cottonwoods, ash, with occasional oaks and also occasional groupings of aspen as well.
Once you are in a forest with a lot of elms as described above, start looking for just about any dead trees. Honestly, when you’re just getting started, it isn’t a terrible idea to check anything that might be a dead elm. As you become more competent at identifying dead elms, then it will save you a lot of time, of course, not to check every old dead tree in the forest.
A common mistake that I made when I was first starting to hunt for elms was that I was only looking for large trees. I pretty much ignored anything smaller than a paint can and came close to disregarding trees that were anything less than 12 inches in diameter. I would say 70% of the morels I have found have come from trees no larger than 10 inches in diameter.
The perfect dead elms, the ones most worth spending some time under, are the ones that still have at least half of their bark remaining and/or much of their branches. If the tree is just a flagpole with no bark and no branches sticking up out of the ground, pretty likely the ground will be as bare of morels as the tree is of bark. Similarly, folks say that dead or dying elms will produce morels. In my years of hunting, only once have I found any morels under an elm with any green leaves on it. So even if the tree is 90% dead, if it has a few green leaves on there, you’re probably okay to skip over it.
You do all this and start finding lots of dead elms, morels will come shortly after. Oh, I guess there’s one quick note: stick to soils that drain well. Often they are a little bit sandy. If it’s really dense claylike soil and it doesn’t drain well, morels don’t do well. The soil also needs to be between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit for morels to fruit. Check on local agricultural websites or forums or weather websites to find soil temps as these are also commonly used when considering times to plant crops.
If it’s spring, like it is now for me, the single best thing you can do to get ready for morel season is go out to your favorite parks and look for dead elms. If you find a bunch, write down where. Now look around for parks and state forests and wildlife management areas that you’ve never been to. Go to those places and look for more elms, both live and dead. If you see live ones, keep looking. Once you find a big patch of a lot of dead elms, write that down. Keep doing this and you’ll end up with a whole list of good morel spots. Then, as temperatures warm up and soil temperatures start to hit 50 degrees Fahrenheit, well then you’re on your way. You're not done yet though, because not every dead elm--even ones that check every box--fruits morels. This is one reason morels are so prized, they are very difficult to find. I've spent a whole day out in the woods checking lots of good elms and come home empty handed. Other days, though, I'll come home with pounds of mushrooms. Have patience, put in hard work hiking the hill country, and it will pay off. Every year you will improve, as well. Check out this other post I did last year for other signs that the climate is right for morels. And if you're still not sure how to identify morel, read up on that here. Good luck and happy hunting!