Hunting Mushrooms In The Desert

Umtanum Verpa 1

Verpa bohemica, one of the so called False Morels, found in a riparian zone under Cottonwoods in the desert of Eastern (central) Washington.

by Brady Raymond

It’s that time of year to grab your packs and baskets and head out to the woods.  If you know where to look or tend to be lucky you will surely stumble across some Verpa bohemica.  On the east side of the Cascades, between 1300ft-1900ft is where I found the specimens photographed both above and at the end of the article.  I found them at two separate locations at either end of the aforementioned altitudes.  A few stood proud and tall yet some were inconspicuously protruding from beneath the twigs, leaves, and other duff which make up the forest floor.  Now this would all be great if they were Morels but alas they were False Morels, and although some people eat them, I do not count myself among them.  If you decide to eat them use a reputable field guide for your region and make sure you know how to properly prepare them.  Some folks don’t react well after ingesting Verpa bohemica, but I guess that could be said with all mushrooms.  Do your research before eating any mushroom.  When in doubt, throw it out

Over here on the East side, your search for mushrooms is most likely to succeed if you stick to riparian zones.  That is to say, areas near streams and rivers.  Once you start to see Willow and Cottonwood trees you know you are getting close to a riparian area. Learn to identify Cottonwoods as they seem to be friendly with Verpa bohemica and Morels alike.  Verpa bohemica often time precede Morels by a couple weeks and will many times overlap with them.  Although you may be fooled by the look alike at first, don’t be too upset when you realize your folly.  You’re on the right track, just a little early.

Home Creek

A small creek running through my property.  These Cottonwoods are still rather young but yielded Verpa.  Let’s hope the Morels will follow soon.

Another sign you are in a riparian zone is the presence of Urtica diocia also known as Stinging Nettles.  Nettles can be annoying to downright painful depending on your body chemistry but they are a plentiful, delicious and a nutritious foraged edible.  Nettles are best harvested when still young and tender.  I like to wear rubber dipped work gloves and use scissors to harvest.  I collect them in a paper grocery bag as long as it’s not to wet out.  I like the paper bags because they fold up nicely in my pack and aren’t much in the way before I use them.

When dried or cooked the stinging hairs of the Nettle are rendered impotent.  They can be used for tea, or to make pesto, as a topping for pizza, or whatever else you can think of.  It’s a good substitute for spinach (cooked), yet has a vibe and flavor that I find unique, it tastes like springtime.  There are plenty of resources online for those that are curious about recipes and their nutritional value.

Home Nettles

I don’t have to go far for Nettles, these are right out my back door.  Chances are high that you the reader doesn’t have to go far either, as they grow throughout the state where the soil stays a bit wetter, usually in riparian zones.

Robins Nest

I had to work fast to get this snapshot, Mamma Robin wasn’t too happy.  Riparian zones are the lifeblood of the dry habitats on the Eastern slopes of the Cascades.  Providing water, food and much-needed shade for a whole host of animals, especially birds.

The further east in Washington you head the dryer the climate gets, and riparian zones are the lifeblood of the desert.  The image below probably doesn’t look very inviting to a would-be mushroom hunter but mushrooms await for those with the fortitude to seek them out.  In the picture below I am standing 200ft or so above the creek, the taller trees are Cottonwood, and mature ones at that.  These are the places I would focus my search if hunting Morels in this type of habitat.  And like I said, although we were only finding False Morels on this trip I’m confident Morels will be found here in the coming weeks.

Umtanum Scenary

It may not scream mushrooms but they are there near the water.

If you do make it over the pass to try your luck in the next week or two, do yourself a favor and bring some binoculars.  If you don’t find any mushrooms you will definitely be treated to some great birding action, other wildlife abounds as well for those with keen senses.  Use the opportunity to learn some trees and plants.  Or maybe do some rock hounding or experience in person some of Washington’s fascinating geology.  If you are unfamiliar with the geologic past of our region you may be surprised when you find out how incredible a story has been scrolled across this landscape, some of which was not all that long ago in the grand scheme of things.

Umtanum Verpa 2

Hi, I’m a False Morel, Verpa bohemica.  Sorry if I disappointed you, but I am a sign of things to come.

Whether you find mushrooms or not it is good to be prepared for your outing.  Make sure to dress appropriately, layers are recommended as conditions can change in an instant and don’t forget sun protection and sturdy footwear either.  Make sure to bring plenty of water and don’t forget to drink it.  It surprises me how many people forget to drink water and don’t realize they are getting dehydrated.  Same goes for snacks, you have to keep your energy up while trudging around the sun-baked landscape.

Here are a couple of articles on safety for those of you who are new to mushrooming;

Mushroom Hunting Safety

Car Prep For Mountain Excursions

Umtanum Rattle Snake

Western Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis.  I estimate that this individual was around the average adult size of three feet.  Although rare, 48 to 60 inch specimens have been recorded.

On the subject of safety, wildlife is another thing to think about.  Your chances of problems with bears or cougars are probably slim but it’s worthwhile to read up on their behavior so you know what to do in case of an encounter gone awry.  Rattlesnakes are another consideration.  It’s a good idea to pay close attention where you place hands and feet while out in the Eastern Cascades.  If you plan on or ever have hunted the east side, guess what, you’re in Rattlesnake country.  The specimen pictured above was just off the trail under some brush.  It let us know from a distance where he was, rattling and seemingly ready to strike, but many times they remain silent hoping you’ll just pass them by.  Regardless, I’m glad I didn’t find out it was there trying to reach for a mushroom, especially a Verpa I thought was a Morel.

Day by day and night by night we creep closer to our first true Morels of the year.  Maybe some of you have already found some, but I haven’t heard so if that’s the case.  Even though it may be a bit early it is just as wonderful to get out and do some scouting, bird watching, and rock hounding all the while trying to avoid snakes, ticks, ants and wasps.  If you do head out soon I have a feeling that you’re bound to find a mushroom of some kind, so get out there and good hunting.