Now that spring-like weather seems to have arrived (or at least it’s here for this week), it’s time to get out and hunt for mushrooms.

For many area residents, spring’s appearance means it’s time to search leaf-covered forest floors and river bottom areas for morel mushrooms. Morel hunting is an Ozarks tradition that, for most people, swings into gear sometime around the final days of March or the first half of April – depending on weather. If you’re looking to add some variety to the dinner table, a cure to cabin fever, a way to get the family outside – or all of the above – a morel hunt may be the solution.

Morels, like all mushrooms, are the reproductive structures of a fungus. These fungi are not plants. They are fungi, which are unique organisms unto themselves.

Mushrooms sprout from a net of microscopic underground fibers called hyphae. Collectively, the hyphae make up the mycelium, which is the equivalent of the “body” of the fungus organism. The mycelium grows in materials it feeds off of – soil, wood, or decaying matter. Mushrooms don’t feed on substances in the same manner that many vertebrates and invertebrates do. Mushrooms metabolize carbon-rich compounds manufactured by other plants and organisms. They do this by breaking down these compounds with enzymes. These enzymes break down organic substances into molecules which are absorbed through the cell wall. This fungal feeding process provides valuable clean-up assistance in nature by helping to decompose rotting logs and other dead vegetative matter found in forests. The morel mushrooms that sprout from these fibers carry the spores necessary for the fungus to reproduce.

Moist forested areas, south-facing slopes and river bottoms are good places to begin looking. It should be noted that many people have stories about finding morels in some very “un-mushroomy” locations so keep your eyes peeled when you’re walking across other types of landscapes, too. A good thing to take on morel hunts, particularly if you’re new to the activity, is a mushroom identification book. Keep an eye out for birds and wildflowers, too. Some of the earliest spring wildflowers appear in timbered areas and spring is also a good time to spot a number of bird species in bright courtship colors.

If you’ve never eaten morels before, make your first morel meal a small one. It’s wise to first find out if morels agree with your system. If they do, it’s time to chow down.

Remember, April 17-May 7 is the state’s spring turkey season. The shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise to 1 p.m. Any mushroom hunting trips you plan should probably be steered clear of those times or you should take your mushroom hunting to areas where you’re certain no hunting is taking place.

The Missouri Department of Conservation book, “Missouri’s Wild Mushrooms” has information about morels and other mushrooms people can find throughout the state. This book, which also contains recipes, can be purchased at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Regional Office in Springfield and the Springfield Conservation Nature Center. People can also get mushroom information at mdc.mo.gov.