Yellow morels (sometimes called blond morels) are among the most coveted wild mushrooms in the world, and their appearance each spring is a sight for sore eyes. Unlike most fungi that fruit in the summer and fall, yellow morels and other mushrooms in the genus Morchella appear when the winter has faded into spring and the temperatures rise into the 60s and low 70s. There are several different species of yellow morel mushroom that grow in the eastern United States and North Carolina, each of them possessing their own unique characteristics and habitat preferences. Read onward for North Carolina yellow morel cheat codes!
Just kidding; there are no cheat codes for finding yellow morels. However, with some knowledge of trees, moisture distribution in the forest, and a some patience, you should be able to find some of these delicious wild mushrooms. Yellow morels fruit once spring is chugging along at full steam, and in the North Carolina Piedmont I usually see them in mid to late April into May.
Morel mushrooms are edible and choice, but they must be cooked thoroughly; they can make you quite ill if you eat them raw! In my next post, I will include some of my favorite morel mushroom recipes that you should try the next time you find yourself in possession of some of these magnificent fungi!
Yellow Morel Distinguishing Features
Although there are several species of yellow morel mushroom, each of them shares features that make them distinctive fungi. Like the black morels that grow in North Carolina, Morchella angusticeps, yellow morels are characterized as having a honeycombed cap that’s made up of a series of pits and ridges, and the entirety of the mushroom is hollow. If you were to slice a yellow morel in half, you would have something that looks a little like a miniature canoe with a stem on the inside, especially if your yellow morel is conically shaped. The stems and caps of yellow morels tend to be yellowish, light brown, buff, or off-white, and both pits and ridges of yellow morels are lightly colored.
Early in their growth cycle, yellow morels (especially those of the species Morchella esculentoides) occasionally look gray, and for many years east coast mushroom hunters thought that these “gray morels” were a different species from their yellow relatives. However, recent DNA analysis revealed that so-called “gray morels” are in fact just immature specimens of larger yellow morels that needed a little more time to reach their destined greatness. For more information on the entire Morchella genus, including an overview of morel mushroom lookalike species, take a look at this post from last week.
In general, morels are divided into three clades, or evolutionary groupings. The elata clade is primarily made up of black morels, which tend to be smaller and often appear earlier in the spring than yellow morels. The yellow morels, by contrast, are mostly placed in the esculenta clade. The final clade, rufobrunnea, has only one species in it, which is a yellow morel that has a reddish or orange staining reaction as it ages. Morchella rufobrunnea is not thought to be resident in North Carolina, although it is relatively common in landscaped areas, wood chip beds, and the like in California and Mexico.
North Carolina’s Yellow Morel Mushrooms
If you are fortunate enough to find some morel mushrooms but you are not sure what species you have on your hands, I strongly suggest using this key from Mushroom Expert, which is an excellent website with a wealth of up-to-date identification information on North America’s 19 currently recognized species of morel. However, the descriptions below should help if you are hunting yellow morels in North Carolina and want ideas of what forests to visit. Although this article is mostly dedicated to the esculenta (or yellow) morel clade, there are a couple species I have described that are not classified as such. However, I took the liberty of describing them because they are sometimes “yellow” from an observer’s perspective.
Morchella esculentoides is one of the most widespread and common yellow morel mushrooms, and they grow throughout the United States. Morchella esculentoides is a relatively large yellow morel that frequently has a rounded or egg-shaped cap, although at times they have conical and pointy caps, especially when they are young. These yellow morels can get to be up to 11 inches tall, and their flesh is meaty and robust. The stem of Morchella esculentoides tends to be thick and stout, and when the mushroom ages they can appear to be puffy or inflated. In the past, some people assumed these puffy-stemmed yellow morels were a separate species (Morchella crassipes) but recent DNA analysis concluded that these yellow morels were just aging specimens of Morchella esculentoides.
Morchella esculentoides grows in the springtime near a variety of hardwoods, and like many morels, they are presumed to be both saprobic and mycorrhizal (decomposing and mutualistic with plant partners, respectively) at different points in the morel mushroom mycelium’s life cycle. Morchella esculentoides has rather random pits and ridges all over the cap that are not symmetrically arranged, giving them somewhat of a wild and unkempt appearance. If morels look like honeycombs, Morchella esculentoides is a honeycomb constructed by caffeine-addled bees!
This species of yellow morel grows in association with white and green ash trees, dead and dying American elm trees throughout the Midwest and eastern United States, old apple orchards, and sometimes in urban habitats or near coniferous trees. There is another yellow morel that is indistinguishable from Morchella esculentoides without genetic analysis called Morchella cryptica, and this yellow morel has been found in a variety of habitats in the eastern United States, but most often in the Great Lakes region, Ontario, and south to western Pennsylvania.
Morchella virginiana is another yellow morel that is resident to North Carolina, and this species is my favorite of the yellow morel. Morchella virginiana has a cap with vertically arranged pits and ridges, and the cap itself is usually egg-shaped or rounded, although sometimes they are conical in shape. Morchella virginiana is a little bit smaller than its cousin Morchella esculentoides, and its stem tends to be more slender, but it is not at all uncommon to find specimens of this yellow morel that are 6 to 8 inches tall, including the cap and stem. The cap and the stem are completely attached to one another, and the color of the cap is usually a tawny yellow to gold color. The stem occasionally has a bulbous or enlarged base.
Morchella virginiana is my favorite yellow morel because it is meaty and delicious, and since it has thick flesh, it cooks up extremely well. Furthermore, it grows in gorgeous habitats; its preferred tree partner is the tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera) and it grows in lush, healthy ecosystems that are wet but not entirely marshy. My yellow morel hunting partner and I have discerned that Morchella virginiana grows in places that has a particular “squish” to the soil; the ground should be soft and very moist without being sloppy, and they are often found in sandy soil in river bottoms, along creeks, and in drainage areas that have dried up enough to be passable. We can usually tell whether or not our favorite yellow morel patches are popping based on this squishy sensation under our boots, and spend a lot of the spring discussing relative “squishes” in habitats that we think are promising. We have even gone so far as to conduct “squish tracking” on our calendar, rating the squishes on a scale of zero to morel. I am not sure if this particular method of data collection is as good as measuring soil temperatures and looking for south-facing slopes, but nonetheless it gives us an excuse to draw little morel icons on the calendar.
Like other yellow morels, Morchella virginiana is presumably both saprobic and mycorrhizal, with a strong preference for tulip poplars. In addition, they like sunlight but not too much! The best places to find this yellow morel are somewhat open polar groves with some sparse shrubbery and plenty of ground cover grasses and other plants that keep the soil from eroding too much. The morels often pop up in the limited shade around low-lying bushes and small trees, as though hiding from enterprising mushroom hunters!
As the Latin name implies, Morchella diminutiva is a dainty yellow morel that usually has vertically arranged pits on its cap, which is completely attached to the stem. Given that it often does not get taller than a few inches, these pits are not very numerous, and so these morels sort of look like baby mushrooms, even if they’re starting to get cracked and dry and have gotten to their full height. The cap of Morchella diminutiva can be rounded, but it is often pointy and conical like a witch’s hat. Morchella diminutiva can be found growing in association with ash trees, tulip poplar, hickory, and other hardwoods. Generally speaking, I have found Morchella diminutiva in the same habitats as Morchella virginiana and Morchella angusticeps, which makes the waterside mixed hardwood forests of the North Carolina Piedmont one of my favorite haunts in the spring!
Other North Carolina Morels That Share Yellow Morel Habitats and Might Look Yellow Under Some Circumstances
Also known as the semi-free morel, Morchella punctipes is a morel in the eastern United States that is abundant in some years, and rare or entirely unavailable in other years. This mushroom is not a true yellow morel (in the esculenta clade) and it is classified as a member of the elata (or black morel) clade, although its appearance places it somewhere in between a black and a yellow morel at times. The main distinguishing features of Morchella punctipes are as follows: a hollow stem, often with some spotty flesh on the outside, and a small, usually conical cap that is attached to the stem in a limited way. Basically, about half of the cap of Morchella punctipes is attached to the stem, and the lower half hangs free like a skirt. The pits of Morchella punctipes are pale to yellow, and the ridges can be pale, tan, or dark with age. These morels can grow gregariously or alone in association with a wide array of hardwoods. Although I have never personally found Morchella punctipes in North Carolina, other experienced mushroom hunters I have spoken with have found them in abundance in mixed hardwood forests with a great deal of moisture available to support mushroom growth.
Morchella importuna is considered a black morel in the elata clade, but its appearance sometimes is more akin to a gray form of a yellow morel, which is why I elected to include it. Although rare (and not genetically confirmed) in the eastern United States, Morchella importuna is worth looking for because they grow practically anywhere there is landscaping material, especially wood chips! These morels are often quite dark but occasionally are blonde or yellowish in color. Unlike most morel mushrooms, Morchella importuna appears to be saprobic, meaning that it does not need a plant partner in order to thrive. Instead, this morel fancies disturbed habitats with plenty of organic material to decompose and consume! Again, this morel is thought to be uncommon in the east, although it is quite abundant in the western United States.
Morchella importuna was my first morel; I found a lovely patch of them growing in a pile of woodchips underneath the compressor of a window A/C unit in Portland, Oregon back in the spring of 2009. I guess the steady stream of drips from the A/C, combined with plenty of tasty black walnut chips to munch on, convinced the morels to grow, and they appeared as a cluster of several individuals that were packed so closely together they looked like a bouquet of fungus-flowers!
Morchella Rufobrunnea, A Yellow Morel That Stains Reddish-Orange
Morel mushroom cultivation is a somewhat mad-making idea, and there are plenty of people who ask me whether or not they can grow morels in their backyards and gardens. The answer is maybe, but to a limited extent, and all but one of the morels I have described (Morchella importuna) in this article are not suitable candidates for cultivation. However, there is hope, and the weird and atypical species called Morchella rufobrunnea is one morel mushroom that is commercially cultivated.
Although Morchella rufobrunnea is not found in North Carolina, this species has other interesting traits, including an ecology that supports efforts at cultivation. One reason that morels are so darn expensive is that they have to be gathered from the wild, which greatly inflates their price. However, commercial cultivation of Morchella rufobrunnea is not only possible, a process for doing so has been patented!
Morchella rufobrunnea is unusual because most morel species are thought to be both saprobic (decomposing mushrooms that rely on dead organic material for food) and mycorrhizal (mutualists who live in partnership with a tree or plant that support the mushroom mycelium), but Morchella rufobrunnea is exclusively saprobic and thus does not require a plant or tree partner in order to survive. As a consequence, Morchella rufobrunnea can be grown in culture and brought to fruit, like oyster mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, king trumpet mushrooms, and other fungi decompose and consume dead plant matter.
Another feature that makes Morchella rufobrunnea cool is it’s coloration; it stains a reddish-orange as it matures, and so it looks much like other yellow morels with the exception of this distinctive and audacious coloration. It grows on the west coast and into Mexico, and is spotted on roadsides and other exposed places where it can find ample nutrition. Although you won’t find this one in North Carolina, it is a really neat-looking yellow morel and I could not help but include it!
Concluding Thoughts on Yellow Morels
From a culinary perspective, yellow morels are in many ways superior to other species in the Morchella genus because they tend to be firm, thick-fleshed, and hardy. Given this, they hold up extremely well when cooked and have unparalleled flavor. And rest assured, finding them is satisfying indeed. I have heard more screams of mushroom-delight related to yellow morels than any other species.
There is one particular friend of mine who shared a great mushroom walk with me a few years ago, and we were striking out pretty epically. As we strolled through a mixed hardwood and coniferous habitat getting grimmer by the second, Mike looked off into the mid-distance and squinted like he was trying to remember something. Then, he screeched “FOOOOOD!” and pointed off to our left, and dashing like a madman towards the small patch of yellow morels he had spotted at 20 or so yards. Shortly thereafter, we each had a lovely clutch of mushrooms in our baskets, and felt good enough about the day to head home, satisfied and happy.