by Danny Miller
This month’s Mushroom of the Month is one that is probably already on everybody’s mind… the Morel!
Mushroom hunting comes in two seasons here in the Pacific Northwest, spring and fall. Most of our mushrooms prefer the fall, it is the bigger of the two seasons, but spring is the time to hunt for many people’s favourite mushroom, the morel!
Morels are great to hunt for, because they are pretty easy to learn to identify, unlike the hundreds of common gilled mushrooms that all seem to look alike. Make sure you learn the colour and shape of the true morel, though, as some people confuse them with the deadly poisonous Gyromitra esculenta and G. infula, which usually look more like a brain or a saddle on a stick, respectively. Even closer looking is Verpa bohemica. A Verpa, however, does not have the bottom of its cap attached to the stem, but a true morel does. A Verpa also has a stuffed stem, but a morel stem is hollow.
Morels certainly are quite an odd looking mushroom! In fact, they are only distantly related to most other famous mushrooms, such as the commonly shaped “cap, stem and gill” mushrooms that we think of when we think of a mushroom. Did you know that most fungi that produce mushrooms big enough to see fall into two groups, which we nickname “basidios” and “ascos”, based on how the spore-making cells operate and look under a microscope? Although “ascos” are more numerous in general, making a majority of the very tiny molds and yeasts in the world, “basidios” are more likely to produce big mushrooms. The majority of the large mushrooms you find fruiting in the woods are “basidios”. They tend to fruit in the fall, while “ascos” like the morel seem to have a lot of spring fruiters. If the mushroom has a top and a bottom, a “basidio” is more likely to grow spores on the bottom side (for instance, under the cap on the gills), while “ascos” are more likely to grow spores on the top.
Our morels are usually black, although there may be bits of of yellow, pink or green colours. Genetically, there are two kinds of morels, called black and yellow, although the colours are not reliable and the yellow morels are only sometimes a paler yellow-brown colour than then the so-called “black” ones. A better way to tell them apart is by looking at the pattern of pits in the caps. “Black” morels usually have their pits arranged in more-or-less vertical columns, whereas “yellow” morels have the pits arranged more haphazardly. If you turn one upside down, a black morel is more likely to have a depression around the stem where the cap attaches that I like to call an “ant runway”. Black morels can be found anywhere, as we’ll talk about in a moment, but yellow morels are often found under cottonwood, like Verpa.
There is a special kind of black morel, Morchella populiphila called the “half-free” morel because it kind of looks like Verpa bohemica with the bottom of the cap not attached to the stem. About the top half of the cap is attached to the stem, though. In Verpa bohemica, only the very top of the cap is attached. Plus the half-free morel has a hollow stem, like all morels. Like the yellow morels, they are usually found near cottonwoods.
Black morels have a fascinating history. A good detective novel could probably be written about the quest to figure out the “real” names of our black morels. In 2012, Philippe Clowez et. al. (meaning “and others”) published a large paper on morels of the world, in french. A couple of months later, in April 2012, Michael Kuo et. al. published an American paper. Both had a lot of great information in them, but it was unclear which morels in the Kuo paper were the same as the ones described in the Clowez paper. If so, being published first, the names in the Clowez paper would have priority. What followed was a forensic study worthy of a CSI episode with some of the results published in 2014 by Franck Richard et. al.
The one thing that everybody now agrees on is that while we used to call every black morel we found Morchella elata, we now realize there are actually dozens of different morels that mostly look alike. They sort of come in three groups: those that grow in recently burned areas, those that grow in the wilderness in regular forests and those that grow in the city in recently landscaped yards and disturbed areas.
“Burn” morels are probably the most famous. They mostly grow the first spring after a summer forest fire. Subsequent years, interestingly enough, show a marked decrease in the number that will grow. You can bet there will soon be many people combing through last summer’s wildfire areas. Be careful if you want to try this; there are restrictions of where you can go and how you can pick and (free) permits may be required even for personal use.
You might get lucky and find a wild morel anywhere in the forest (although they seem to prefer eastern Washington) but most fascinating are the morels that might grow in your own yard! People report that if they have done any landscaping to their yard and disturbed the ground sufficiently, the next spring morels will start growing! But just like the burn morels, it might only happen for one year. You may have to re-landscape your yard every year, a prospect that may actually be more expensive than paying for your morels at the market (but more satisfying). Just as interesting is the fact that morels are widely known to be one of those mushrooms that need to live in a symbiotic relationship with a tree. You cannot grow them in captivity. However, the “landscape” morel is often found no where near any trees. Is there a possibility of growing these, or a similar species commercially someday? You can bet there are many people trying. It was first accomplished in 1982 in California. People briefly had some success with the technique in Alabama and now they are trying again in Michigan.
The morel was first officially discovered and named in Sweden by Elias Fries in 1822. An obvious question to ask is “which of the many black morels is the one that he first found and named”? Well, the shriveled 200 year old corpse of that famous “first morel” is too old to be DNA sequenced. One interesting possibility is that the landscape morel that grows in Seattle yards might actually be the same one! But it hasn’t been proven. Right now teams are scouring the forests of Sweden to try and find a morel that most closely matches the one he found back in 1822. Soon, I expect somebody will make an educated guess as to which of the Swedish morels it probably was, and that will become the official Morchella elata. Is that famous first morel one of the ones we find here in the Pacific Northwest? Stay tuned…
Remember to not only make sure you identify all your finds as true morels, but that you cook them thoroughly! Did you know that many people get sick from eating them raw?
To read more about the morels and false morels, visit my Pictorial Key at http://alpental.com/psms/PNWMushrooms/PictorialKey/Morels.htm
If you have the time and interest, the entire Pictorial Key covers more than 1,500 PNW species, all with colour photos with similar species shown side by side and their differences highlighted. It also includes a lot of other information about mushrooms and their identification. You can browse it online, or even install it on your phone or tablet and use it in the wilderness with no need for cell reception or an internet connection! http://alpental.com/psms
This Pictorial Key is part of a larger free mushroom identification program for the PC and Mac called “MatchMaker”. The entire program can be found here: http://www.matchmakermushrooms.com