COLUMBIA — The morel holds a certain appeal that draws in mushroom hunters across Missouri.
Part of the appeal is the thrill of the hunt — the challenge of searching for them along the forest floor.
Morel hunting is also its own sort of competition. Morel hunters rarely divulge the location of their findings because doing so could mean risking their spring harvest.
Then there's the taste. Wild. Nutty.
Maxine Stone, author of "Missouri's Wild Mushrooms," a guide from the Missouri Department of Conservation, said no other mushrooms have "the same mystique" as morels.
The morel season, which usually begins in early April and ends by the beginning of May, has been slightly delayed in central Missouri because of cool weather, but morel enthusiasts expect the mushrooms will appear in full force over the next several days.
Brad Bomanz said this morel season is one of the latest he's seen, especially in comparison to last year's early season, which began near the end of March. Bomanz serves as executive secretary for the Missouri Mycological Society and has been studying morels for a research project with the Tyson Research Center for 10 years.
Online forums and blogs such as Stan Hudson's "Mid Missouri Morels and Mushrooms" have recently reported morel findings in areas of central Missouri, but they are still small and will likely grow if left unpicked.
"They're real small right now," Bomanz said. "The way the weather seems like it's going to be, I'd say probably within another five days, the real season will start."
Bomanz said the ideal weather conditions for morels to grow requires repeated periods of rain followed by heat.
"The mushroom has to stay moist in order for it to grow," Bomanz said.
Rainfall every few days keeps the morel moist so that it can grow during the succeeding period of warmth. If the back and forth process continues, the morel can grow up to 12 inches tall, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation's morel webpage.
Once the morel begins to dry, Bomanz said its growth is stunted. Even if it rains again, the morel will not grow any larger.
Because the start of the morel season has been delayed, it is possible the season could be prolonged, but Simeon Wright, a Conservation Department forest pathologist, said it will depend on the weather.
"Last year, it was so warm that the season was fairly short," Wright said. "If cool, moist weather continues, it will last longer."
The morels can sometimes be difficult to find because their growth is so dependent on the correct balance of weather conditions.
Even on a single property, Wright said, the number that appear at a particular time of the season can vary drastically depending on the exposure to sun and warmth.
"If (morel hunters) find some morels, pay very close attention to the characteristics of that site," Wright said.
He said to take note of the types of trees in the area, the slope of the land and the sun exposure. If morels have been found in a certain type of area, he said it is likely that more can be found in a similar location.
Though the morels themselves can be picky about the conditions in which they grow, morel hunters enjoy multiple aspects of the experience, even if there are few morels to be found.
"It's a chance to get outside and enjoy the nice weather, enjoy the forest and see if you can find something to take home with you for a nice dinner," Wright said.
Stone said the experience of finding the morels is an adrenaline rush; her heart starts beating, and her excitement level rises when she spots one and then a few more.
"There's nothing quite like morels," she said.