Hunting for morel mushrooms is a springtime tradition in many parts of the United States and Canada, and few wild mushrooms inspire more avarice, secrecy, and excitement than the morel.
If you’ve never eaten a morel mushroom, you simply don’t know what you’re missing! Morel mushrooms have astonishing culinary value, and they are earthy, meaty, and delicious. Although it is possible to buy them in many grocery stores, morels are usually extremely expensive, which makes hunting for them yourself a tempting option. Furthermore, chasing morel mushrooms in the wild is great fun, especially in the eastern United States, where they grow in lush woodland landscapes that are quite pretty in the spring.
Morel Mushrooms – Key Features
Morel mushrooms make up the genus Morchella, which is derived from the German word “morchel,” which means mushroom. Morels are distinctive mushrooms, and are characterized by a hollow stem and a cap that ranges in color from tan to black, green to gray. The cap is made up of a series of pits and ridges of flesh that gives it it a distinctive “honeycombed” appearance that is a bit rubbery and sometimes brittle on the edges, especially if the mushroom has dried up. The stem of most morel mushrooms is tan, sort of a yellow-brown tawny color and is at times adorned by small, fuzzy dots of tissue that are lighter in color.
In most species of morel mushroom, the cap is entirely attached to the stem, enveloping the top of the stem with a pitted, ridged cap. One exception to this rule of thumb is Morchella punctipes, a morel mushroom that grows in North Carolina and other east coast states. Another North American morel mushroom that grows in the Pacific Northwest, Morchella populiphila, also has a partially free cap that hangs down the stem, rather than being firmly attached to it. In many guidebooks, both of these free-capped morel mushrooms are called Morchella semilibera (common name: semi-free morel mushroom), but recent genetic analysis concluded that Morchella semilibera is a European species that does not grow in North America, as far as we know.
Morel mushrooms grow in a variety of habitats, depending on what species of Morchella they are, but most of them are thought to have a blended mycorhizzal and saprobic lifestyle. Mycorhizzal ecology is characterized by a mutualistic lifestyle, wherein the mycelium of the mushroom attaches itself to the root system of a plant partner, and the two organisms share resources and protect one another. A saprobic lifestyle, by contrast, means that the mushroom mycelium grows through its habitat and decomposes and digests dead organic material.
In the next couple posts, I will delve into the topic of morel mushroom habitats, and the sorts of trees and landscapes they favor (although I will not be including any GPS coordinates, sorry…). Suffice it to say that morels grow all over the place: pine forests at high elevations and burn zones on the west coast, boggy deciduous forests in the east, apple orchards, landscaped parks and campgrounds, and everything in between.
Morel Mushroom Lookalikes
Morel mushrooms have few lookalikes, which makes them good candidates for novice mushroom hunters. However, there are a few mushroom species that are similar enough to morel mushrooms to make it worthwhile to keep an eye out for them.
There are some mushrooms in the genus Verpa that look like morel mushrooms, most especially Verpa bohemica, which is known as the “false morel” or the “early morel.” This mushroom is commonly spotted near willow and cottonwood, especially on the banks of rivers and streams, and Verpa bohemica is a prime indicator of the coming morel mushroom season on the west coast. They usually pop up about two weeks before black morels (Morchella elata) make an appearance. To my knowledge, Verpa bohemica does not occur in North Carolina, my home state; I have never found them here, Mushroom Observer has no observations of them in the southeastern United States, and those avid mushroom hunters I have asked have never found a single one while hunting in the forests of North Carolina.
The main features that make Verpa bohemica distinct from a morel mushroom is the innards of its stem; Verpa bohemica has wispy tufts of cottony material inside the stem, and the stem itself tends to be more slender than that of your average morel mushroom. In addition, Verpa bohemica’s cap is not fully attached to the stem; instead, the flesh of the cap is attached to the top of the stem and hangs free like a thimble balanced on the top of the mushroom, with a skirt of ridged and somewhat pitted flesh hanging free. Verpa bohemica typically fruits a few weeks before the true morels start to appear; often in early to mid-March.
Another Verpa, Verpa conica, looks even less like a morel mushroom; it shares the features noted above for V. bohemica, but the surface of the cap is wrinkly but not distinctly pitted and ridged like a true morel.
Many people eat Verpa bohemica, but it is considered suspect because it may contain small amounts of the toxin Gyromitrin, which when consumed can cause serious illness or even death. Eating a large quantity of Verpa bohemica, or eating it over the course of several days, has been linked to poisonings; the effects of Verpa bohemica poisoning include gastrointestinal distress and disorientation. However, many people consider Verpa bohemica to be a suitable candidate for the table. One time I even encountered Verpa bohemica as an ingredient at a fancy restaurant, billed as “fresh Oregon morel mushrooms!” I brought the misidentified mushroom to my waiter’s attention, and the response was one of muted embarrassment. I am not sure if they pulled the Verpas from the menu.
Two additional morel mushroom “lookalikes” are Gyromitra esculenta and Gyromitra gigas (which is also sometimes called Gyromitra montana in the Rocky Mountains and westward). Gyromitra esculenta mushrooms contain significant amounts of Gyromitrin, which can be deadly when consumed.
As luck would have it, morel mushrooms actually do not look much like Gyromitras at all; examining these mushrooms side-by-side might cause you to scratch your head in bewilderment about how one could confuse them. Gyromitra mushrooms have wrinkled caps, true, but those wrinkles look nothing like the morel mushroom’s distinctive ridges and pits. For more information on Gyromitra mushrooms (including a description of their toxicity), take a look at this post from a few weeks ago.
Different Species in the Morchella Genus
Like most fungi, we are still learning a lot about morel mushrooms. Traditionally, commercial morel mushroom hunters referred to just a few different types of morels: yellow morels, black morels, gray morels, and green morels. However, in recent years, DNA analysis and molecular phylogenetics has revealed that there are at least 19 different species morel mushrooms in North America, and likely somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 species worldwide.
In 2012, a paper was published in Mycologia by Michael Kuo and other contributors, describing 19 genetically distinct species of North American Morchella mushrooms, 14 of which had not been officially named at the time. Even though this might on the surface appear to be daunting, it’s not as bad as it would appear, because there are only three clades (or evolutionary subcategories) within the genus Morchella, and those clades generally follow the rules mushroom hunters always had for morel mushrooms: there are esculenta morels, the yellows, elata morels, the blacks, and then a weird clade that currently only contains one species of morel mushroom: rufobrunnea. As time progresses, there is no doubt that additional species will be discovered and named and perhaps placed into additional clades within the Morchella genus.
One of the big takeaways from the 2012 paper on the Morchella genus was the fact that so-called “green morels” are not a separate species of morel. In fact, there are several species of morel mushroom that can appear greenish in color, but those morels traditionally known as “greenies” or “pickles” are not a distinct species.
In addition, there were two other putative species of morels in the eastern United States that turned out not to be distinct species. First, the “gray morel” of the eastern United States is not a separate entity from the classic “yellow morels” (Morchella esculentoides, Morchella virginiana, and others), but simply appears to be different based on the mushroom’s age; essentially, Morchella esculentoides and other yellow morel mushrooms can look grayish when they are young, but they are not any different from the delightful yellow morels found in semi-marshy deciduous groves on the east coast and in the Midwest.
Another putative species, Morchella crassipes, which is a yellow morel mushroom with a large, puffy stem, is simply a yellow morel that has been around for a while, resulting in a warped, inflated, or elongated stem. These three cases highlight a common issue in the identification and scientific naming of morel mushrooms and other fungi. As mushrooms age, they can change dramatically, and factors like weather conditions, moisture, and surrounding habitat/debris can radically alter the appearance of a wild mushroom.
In this next week or two, I will post additional information on the specific different species of morel mushrooms that grow in North Carolina, broken up by clade. All these posts should be completed and available well before morel mushroom season begins here, which I suspect will be in late March through mid-April, and lasting as long as the weather stays cool enough to support morel growth.
Morel Mushroom Fruiting Conditions
Morel mushrooms of any species come out when the soil warms enough to support their growth (usually when the soil reaches the 50s). There is loads of speculative and anecdotal information about exactly how warm it must be for morels to fruit, including colloquial axioms like “when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear, that’s when the morels come out…” In my experience, there is no single indication of morel time, save for a somewhat intuitive feeling of true springtime in full bloom. Whenever I go out hunting for morel mushrooms (which is quite a lot), I sniff the air when I hop out of the car. If there is a smell of living greenery on the breeze, and that breeze is warm and welcoming, I am far more optimistic about my prospects than on days when it’s cold and dreary, or even worse, super hot and sticky.
Morels do need moisture to grow, like all mushrooms. Years where it is unreasonably dry can make for some very unhappy morel mushroom hunters indeed! However, it’s good to bear in mind that warm spring rains are not the only source of moisture in the habitat that can bring out morels. Morchella tomentosa, for instance, grows in burn zones in the western United States, and they will often crop up in rows where there is a greater amount of moisture on account of different features in the landscape, such as divots that gather dew. In some sun-blasted landscapes, the temptation might be to look in the shady zones in order to find the dampest spots, but I strongly encourage you not to waste your time in this way. Although morels do grow in dense and lush forests, they like some sunshine (some species more than others) and so your best bet is to head for parts of the habitat that have direct or dappled sunlight.
Morel Mushrooms and Secrecy
Usually, mushroom hunters are a chipper and chatty lot; ask them for some information about how to find mushrooms, identify them, or what-have-you, and your ears will be full to overflowing in short order. However, if you ask about morel mushrooms (especially where to find them in the Midwest or eastern United States), you’ll often get a basilisk-like stare, a shake of the head, and perhaps a muttered “Oh, I don’t know, you just have to go looking for them.” The reason for this is that morel mushrooms are notoriously challenging to find; they are not easy to spot, and seem to be cantankerously dedicated to remaining out of view. Fortunately, some morel mushroom species are perennial, meaning that you can return to the same patch year after year and gather the morel mushrooms that grow there. Other species are less cooperative, and grow wherever they please. If you are planing to hunt for morel mushrooms, it is a good idea to pick which species you are interested in finding, and then study up on that morel mushroom’s particular habitat and fruiting habits. Then, find a good patch of land that typifies these conditions, and get hunting!