As late winter warms into spring certain changes come to Seattle. The trees begin to bud, the grass starts to grow faster, cherry blossoms bring an explosion of beauty to the city. If you are like me, you are checking with friends and monitoring social media to find out if anything has been sighted yet.
Maybe you see or hear about some Oysters mushrooms (species in the Pleurotus genus) growing in lower elevations. They can be found on dead deciduous trees. Around here that usually means alder trees – dead alders. In Washington we have nearly exclusively Red Alder (Alnus rubra) while down in Oregon they have several other species of alder. Look for the Pleurotus species on standing snags or downed logs in late winter and into spring and beyond in parks, particularly along waterways where many alders grow.
But the mushroom of spring is the Morel. While those with a comprehensive historic, linguistic, and taxonomic understanding might think of anything in the Morchellaceae taxonomic family and even a few beyond as some type of morel, many people immediately think of those tasty brown roundish sponge-like mushrooms in the Morchella genus when you say morel.
Before the Morchella appear there is another closely related mushroom in the Morchellaceae family that comes up first; these are the Verpa species. The Verpas are called “Early Morels”, because they come before the other morels (the Morchella).
We have a couple of verpa species around Seattle include Verpa conica, a small mostly smooth capped Verpa found in moist areas. It only grows to a few inches tall. Some common names for it include the Thimble Morel or the Thimble Cap.
Verpas like all members of the Morchellaceae family are edible, but only after cooking well.
The other Verpa you can find in Washington is much taller than Thimble Morel and even taller than any Morchella we get in the Pacific Northwest. This larger Verpa species is the Verpa bohemica. Its excessively wrinkled cap can be deceiving, because without close examination it can look very similar to a Morel (Morchella), but the wrinkles are not the sponge-like of pits of a Morchella.
The Verpa bohemica gets it name from Bohemia, a western region in the Czech Republic where the mushroom was first described. The stipe (stem) of the V. bohemica can be very tall as to compared to the cap which sits on the end of the stipe.
There are a couple of others thing to note about all the Verpas. The can have hollow stipes, because the pithy material inside of the tube of the stipe tends to disappear in age. Whether hollow or not, one thing to notice is that stipe goes all the way to the top of the inside of the cap before it is attached to the cap. In contrast, Morchella species have stipes which are typically hollow. Due to varied growing conditions some species are prone to have many layers in the base making the very bottom of the stipe nearly solid, but not filled with a cottony pith.
More importantly, unlike the various Verpa species, the Morchella species stipe joins smoothly into the stipe, most often blending into the cap at the cap base. In a couple of species the stipe joins to the cap somewhere up into the stipe, these are called Half-free Morels (Morchella punctipes in western North America and Morchella semilibera in eastern North America). Some specimens can be tricky, because the join from the cap to the stipe is way up in the cap, but it is not straight into the top of the cap. In all morels there should be some widening as the cap flares and joins the cap even the “half free” morels.
In the picture of the cut-away Morel (Morchella tomentosa), you can see the stipe smoothly blending with the body of the cap. In some species there is more of channel (when looking from the outside), a nice round gutter running around the bottom of the cap. Some refer to the nice rounded gutter as the ant track.
May you fill your basket with mushrooms and your soul with adventures.