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MOREL MUSHROOM IDENTIFICATION “101”
This article in meant as an entry level basic guideline and is no way intended to take the place of detailed research. Because there are many different species of morels with varying characteristics, all ID traits used in this article are “generally speaking”. It is incumbent upon the reader to thoroughly research proper cooking practices and to positively identify any mushroom before consumption.
Well it’s spring, or at least that is the rumor, and for many parts of the Country that means morel mushroom season. The aim of this article is to provide a basic understanding of what a morel is, or more importantly perhaps, what a morel is not, and to give you the basic tools needed to safely forage for and enjoy one of nature’s true and often elusive delicacies.
So the first question is “what is a morel?”. Well the short answer is that it is a mushroom. That means it is the fruiting body of a larger organism in the Kingdom: Fungi. But strictly speaking a morel is not a true mushroom, though it is the fruiting body of the fungus. Still, their purpose is to produce and distribute spores. True mushrooms produce spores on special cells called basida and are therefore in the phylum known as Basidomycetes. Morels on the other hand, produce their spores on cells called ascocarps and are members of the phylum Ascomycetes. Now before you reach for the aspirin or grab the dictionary, I only mention this because this is one of the reasons morels are considered a beginner’s mushroom. The distinctions above add up to simply this: morels do not have gills or spongy pores on the underside of their caps. Their spores are produced on the outside of the cap in deep pits rather than on bladelike gills on the underside of the cap, in spore tubes (pores) under the cap or in the interior of the mushroom as is the case with mushrooms like puffballs. Having said this, we have just ruled out the vast majority of fungal fruiting bodies as being morels. It is this difference that makes the cap of the mushroom somewhat unique. For those wishing to look further into this, a morel is scientifically defined thusly:
The last thing to note is that not all Ascomycetes are morels. While the common name “morel” is used to describe several species in the Genus Morchella, it is from time to time used as common name for species in the Genus Verpa, Helvella and Gyromitra all of which are Ascomycetes. It is this use of the common name “morel” for fungi outside of the Genus Morchella that we need to avoid in order to safely enjoy the morel foraging experience. While is not necessarily incorrect to refer to things like verpa as morels (they are not in the Genus Morchella but ARE in the Family Morchellaceae) I prefer to consider only those in the Genus Morchella to be true “morels” when talking about edible varieties and, since morel is a common name and not a scientific one, it is perfectly proper for its meaning to be based on context. Luckily, as we will see in the identification portion of this article, there are features of each genus that readily distinguish members of the genus Morchella from other potentially dangerous, or at least less desirable, “look-alikes”. Hopefully after reading this you will scoff at the term “look-alike” and wonder how you ever confused them.
Genus Morchella: Consisting of several known species (and undoubtedly more to yet be identified) these are the true morels as we chose to define them at the outset of this article. There are at least 19 species of true morels in North America, and more are being added via the use of DNA sequencing. Over 20 new species were added worldwide in 2012 alone and many more since. Features can vary but the identification tools below are meant to encompass the most commonly sought U.S. Species as a whole. These species include:
• Mochella esculenta (yellow, blond or common morel, or as with many others: dry land fish)
• Mochella elata, M. conica, M. frustrate, M. snyderi, M. Prava (black morels)
• Morchella semilibera (EUR), Morchella populiphila, Morchella punctipes (half-free morel)
• Morchella angusticeps, Morchella Brunnea (narrowhead or black morel)
• Morchella crassipes (thick or club-footed morel) (classification in dispute)
• Morchella esculenta var. atrotomentosa, Morchella capitata (burnsite morel)
• Morchella tomentosa (grey morel)
• Morchella virginiana syn. Morchella sceptriformis, Morchella diminutiva (tulip poplar morel)
o Cap: Rubbery, hollow. Fused to stem all the way to base with the exception of the “half-free morel” which, as the name implies, has a cap whose lower half is free from the stem. They are sometimes described as having a brain like appearance, but I find this entirely improper and in fact more likely to lead you to one of the dangerous look-alikes such as Gyromitra. They do not have the folded and smoothed over appearance of a brain. A better comparison in my opinion is pumice stone. The caps of morels have deep defined pits. Not folds. The pits are ALWAYS defined by boundary tissue so that one pit is separated from its neighbor. (This is especially important when distinguishing morels from verpa. Verpa look very much like morels. But a close examination of the cap surface reveals that it is made of long wavy ribs that run more or less vertically with few or no separated chambers. These ribs often touch in places giving the appearance of pitted chambers, and occasionally fuse creating a few pitted chambers. See the verpa section below for more detailed characteristics.) The overall cap shape is conical, though this can be somewhat deformed as it pushes through leaf litter and other material on the forest floor. This is true across the variety of species, though some tend towards egg shaped. In most species the cap height is as large as or larger than the stem. The two notable exceptions are the half free morel and the narrowhead morel. Also, with the exception of the narrowhead morel, the cap base is wider than the stem. In the case of the narrowhead morel, the stem often widens to evenly meet the base of the cap, with only a narrow channel separating the two, hence the name. The color varies among the various species from tan to yellow to grey to black. Red or rust is not a color you would likely use to describe a true morel. If you find yourself tempted to use that description you have likely found one of the false morels in one of the other genera mentioned.
o Stem: Rubbery. Hollow, single chamber (with the notable exception of Morchella capitata which is often multi-chambered). Never containing cottony fibers inside. Often having small bumps like pimples both inside and out. Small folds at the base are common and are sometimes deep and look like holes, but rarely go all the way through to the interior. In some species the base is noticeably swollen or club footed. Usually some shade of white, tan or cream though older specimens can be darker.
o Smell: Often strong, pleasant. Sometimes described as fishy though I would add the word “fresh” before fish. Also somewhat nutty and undeniably earthy and woodsy. Smell can be a hard thing to explain, and can vary among species, but you would certainly not describe them as odorless! In fact, once you know the smell, you will very possibly smell them before you see them.
o Fruiting: On ground, occasionally in thin or mossy soil on top of rocks and logs but never growing directly from wood. Solitary or in clumps with close but generally non-fused stems. Clumps have been known to consist of more than a dozen but more commonly number less than seven. Growing throughout temperate regions of the US in both deciduous and coniferous forests as well as in meadows, along roadsides, recently disturbed forest floors, and in recent forest burn sites, depending on species. Fruiting time is early to late spring, first in southern locales and then in northern, generally when soil temps reach 55º F and lasting for a few weeks. One notable exception to this timing is the “landscape morel” (Morchella rufobrunnea) which can appear at any time temps allow in mulch or garden soil. Although an exciting find when morel season has long since passed, they are seldom found in great abundance. In extreme northern locales, fruiting time can extend into July and occasionally beyond. In the deep south, they have been known to appear as early as February. In areas where more than one species is found, the fruiting times can overlap. There is much said about tree associations and many arguments on the topic. A person in one region may say they NEVER find a particular species around cedars while a person in another region may claim to find them in great abundance. It is believed that there are many more species yet to be identified due to these regional differences in habitat. That being said, some known tree associations are Elm, Ash, Apple, Hickory, White Pine (especially after a fire), Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine, Western Larch, Aspen, Poplar, Sycamore, Cottonwood and Tulip Poplar. Some people swear there is an association with May apple plants and Spicebush shrubs but it is more likely these people are just not adept at tree identification and the likely association here is the Ash tree which shares habitat with these plants. Because these associations are often regional and species dependent, it is wise to look into more detail for tree associations based on your location. Burn sites for a year or two after a fire can be great producers of morels. Lastly, the one non tree association I have found is at shady edges of gravel roads and driveways in the upper Midwest. I have no scientific explanation for this, but it has proven reliable for me often enough to mention it here. There is another debate about soil ph being the driving variable for fruiting location, and although this is an intriguing explanation for my gravel road finds, the tree association theories are so long standing, well-studied and proven that I for one do not recommend running around with a soil testing kit.
Since we are not particularly interested in these genera in their own right, I will simply discuss their similarities and differences to the Genus Morchella.
Of the three genera mentioned, this genus is most often confused with true morels, though being in the Family Morchellaceae, they are a closely related genus to Genus Morchella. They are widely eaten as “morels” and often described as excellent. However, some people are known to experience symptoms of poisoning such as stomach upset, diarrhea, dizziness, hypertension, vomiting, loss of muscle control and, in extreme cases or as the cumulative result of consumption, liver damage, permanent neurological damage or even death. That is not to say getting one verpa in the bag is of major concern for most people. Many people seem to eat them with impunity. But we are avoiding them as they are not true morels as we have chosen to define the term at the outset of this article and are at least a cause for some concern.
• Similarities to Morchella:
Habitat, timing, basic shape and size, color, smell, texture and consistency, occasionally hollow.
• Differences from Morchella:
While the cap looks quite similar upon first glance, there are some very obvious and important differences. Firstly, the surface of the cap is covered in long, generally vertical, wavy folds that do not usually create the separate pitted chambers of the true morels though it must be said that they may produce a few such chambers. Also, in most specimens, the cap is almost always considerably shorter in height than the stem. The stem is often covered in small cottony scales. Another common difference is the stems interior. It is most often stuffed with cottony fibers. Unfortunately these are not always present in which case the stem may be hollow. Perhaps the most important difference can be seen in cross section. Unlike the true morel (even the “half-free” morel) the cap is not attached to the stem beyond the tip. As far as the smell goes, while many people say they smell similar to morels, they are rarely described as pleasant. I have heard them described as smelling like everything from stale air from a car tire to a certain bodily fluid I won’t mention. Personally I agree that they smell similar to a morel, but at the same time just don’t smell appetizing. I would say they lack the nutty smell of the true morel but do have the somewhat fishy smell.
Members of this genus are again often eaten and rated as good, but are probably the more dangerous of the look-alikes. They are known to contain a compound that is also present in rocket fuel and, though a person may eat them many times with no ill effect, it has been proven that the effect of these toxins is cumulative and can result in sudden and severe poisoning. Other people experience immediate symptoms of illness. These experiences do vary with species and among people, but none are considered safe and I suggest avoiding all of them as it is always wise to err on the side of caution when foraging for wild mushrooms.
• Similarities to Morchella:
Habitat, timing, superficial shape, coloring, texture and consistency, hollow stem.
• Differences from Morchella:
These are really quite easily distinguished from morel in almost every category given a little inspection. First of all they can be far larger than most morels though of course there are always small specimens of Gyromitra or large specimens of Morchella. The Cap is very different. In color they are often rust red, occasionally tan or yellow. The cap is not bi-laterally symmetrical as morels are. They are made of wavy bumpy folds that often form a nonsymmetrical lump at the top of a rather stout stem. The caps lack the deep well defined pits of Morchella and are better described as deep folds. Their silhouette is also quite different. If they were a tree, the shape would remind you of maple while Morchella would remind you of pine. While the flesh is rubbery, it is also often brittle and it can be difficult to collect them without losing pieces. Like true Morchella, the stems and caps are generally hollow. Some species have a single chambered hollow stem, like Morchella, but others have multiple chambers which Morchella almost never have (Morchella capitata, a burn site morel, is one multi-chambered exception). A few species also have branched stems which Morchella never have. The smell is generally described as pleasant or fruity with a slight chemical smell. To me they smell like the old model airplane glue (that won’t help much if you are under 30 as they quit making that type of glue in the 80’s or 90’s I believe).
These are generally not argued by anyone as a good edible as some are toxic and the one or two that are not are not particularly appealing or found in a great enough abundance to be worth the effort. They again only resemble true Morchella in the most superficial ways and are easily distinguished upon examination.
• Similarities to Morchella:
Habitat, texture, size and occasionally color, hollow stem.
• Differences from Morchella:
Sometime called Lorchel or Elfin Saddle, these generally do not appear until well after Morel season has ended with the exception of in the Pacific Northwest where some members of this genus can overlap with the end of morel season. I hesitated to include them here as a look-alike because you would truly have to be carelessly uninformed to really mistake these for morels and they are not particularly dangerous. Some are considered edible but not worth the trouble while others can be mildly toxic. But as I understand that some people actually do refer to these as morels, we are getting them off the list here. They are generally black, gray or white caps on white to gray stems. There is a tan variety that is quite small and would be difficult to confuse with a morel. They have wavy caps with a generally depressed center raised at the margins giving them the common name “elfin saddle”. I think they look like miniature mechanical bulls. The stem is considerably taller than the cap and often has holes all the way through to a hollow interior. The smell is often described as glue or plastic like, an overall chemical smell. Some species in the genus to not resemble Morchella in any real way and the differences in these are so numerous and the similarities so few that they will not be mentioned as they are not likely to ever be confused with morels.
SO GET OUT THERE!
Hopefully these guidelines will help take some of the mystery out of morel foraging. While volumes could be and have been written about where and when to find these gems of the woods, this article is intended to be useful for people in many areas of the country as a basic introduction to morels. For more specific information on particular species in your area, when and where to look, suggested collection practices and local regulations, I suggest joining a local mycology club, website or Facebook page specific to your area. Morels are often considered a “mushroom hunting 101” mushroom and, in my opinion, rightly so. They are safely foraged by enthusiasts of all ages season after season. With a bit of caution and common sense along with some time spent positively identifying your finds, this can be a fascinating and rewarding endeavor, free of the mystery and frustration so often attributed to it.
A last word of caution. Like many other “safe” wild mushrooms, morels do contain some toxins. These are destroyed when properly cooked. For that reason you should NEVER eat morel mushrooms or any other wild mushroom raw. Some people report stomach upset and illness when consuming alcohol with morels, while others argue this is a symptom of the genus Verpa or Gyromitra. You should always test your tolerance to wild mushrooms by trying a small amount and waiting 24 hours to be sure you tolerate them well. But don’t let this caution scare you off, we all know people who poorly tolerate foods, like tomatoes for example, that the rest of us enjoy with impunity. For the vast majority of us, morel mushrooms are one of nature’s finest wild edibles. Happy hunting!