There are so many reasons to love morel mushrooms. They’re are widespread, easy to identify and tasty. Selling for roughly $20 per pound fresh, there’s good reason to hunt for your own. Most pop up in the early spring, giving you a good excuse to get outside and observe the world as it wakes up from a long winter of hibernation. Here is a guide to finding, identifying, harvesting and preserving them.
When to Forage for Morels
Morels fruit in responce to soil temperature, and can generally be found when daytime temperatures are in the 60’s and the nightly lows are in the 40’s. In Vermont, a good time to find them is in late May. In more Southern latitudes, they can be found as early as March, and in the far north they’ve been recorded as late as July.
Black morels come up first, around the time of the first trout lillies, ramps and trillium. Three weeks later, you’ll begin seeing yellow morels, like these below sighted on May 27th in Central Vermont under an old apple tree.
Where to Forage for Morels
Where to find Morel Mushrooms? Everywhere and nowhere! They’re liable to grow just about anywhere in the US, but finding where a spore has landed and found good conditions for growth is a bit of a scavenger hunt. Luckily, morels are not as picky as you might think about habitat.
Black Morels tend to prefer hardwood forests, especially within 1-2 years of a burn. They don’t need fire to pop up, but something about a burn makes them more likely to appear. They also prefer (but don’t need) alkaline soils, which may have something to do with their preference for recent burn sites. Hard wood ash increases the alkalinity of soils. Though they don’t grow on trees, they are often found near ash, cottonwood, sycamore, as well as in disturbed areas near roadsides, campgrounds, logged areas or recently flooded lowlying areas.
Yellow Morels grow just about everywhere, but are often found near ash, poplar, elm and apple trees. Old apple orchards may have been treated with calcium carbonate (powdered limestone) to increase the pH and make the soils more alkaline. What’s good for apple trees, also happens to be good for morels, and mimics conditions after a burn.
Be careful harvesting in old apple orchards though. Historically, it was not uncommon to treat them with lead and arsenic as pesticide. There is the potential for those chemicals to accumulate in the fruitbodies, so keep that in mind. There is a great discussion of that issue here.
Regardless of where you’re looking, when you spot one there are likely more near by. Look around the trees drip line, where conditions are moist but also sunny to warm the soil. They also seem to like woods edges, where trees give way to open fields.
Identifying Morel Mushrooms
The “Morel” as it is known is not a single species, but a genus with over 100 distinct species that have a similar appearance and characteristics. The main amoung them is that they’re all tasty. While new species are being identified all the time (30 new species were identified as new to science in 2014 alone), generally when talking about morels there are a few key species to note.
The main characteristics of morel mushrooms are:
- Honey-comb like ridges and pits on the cap
- Stem attachment at the base of the cap, and is completely attached along the bottom ridge. (Not under the cap like a skirt or umbrella)
- Morels are always hollow from the bottom of the stem to the tip of the cap
- Usually longer than they are wide (as compared to false morels which are often but not always wider than long)
- Size varies widely , but caps are 1-4 inches in leingth, and 1-2.5 inches wide, and stalks are usually 0.5 to 4 inches long and 0.5 to 1.5 inches in diameter.
- Colors vary but include yellow, tan, grey, grey-black, olive-ish. They rarely venture into the red spectrum, which is more common for false morels.
Morels only have a few “look-alikes” and to my eye, they look nothing alike if you look closely.
Wrinkled Thimble Cap (Verpa Bohemica)
Verpa bohemica looks to my eye the most like a true morel from the outside. It does have something that vaguely looks like a honey-combed cap, but when you look closely, it looks less like a honey-comb with sharp ridges and more like a wrinkled sheet or the lobes of a brain.
The distinction becomes completely clear though, when the mushroom is cut in half leingthwise. Verpa bohemica has a cap to stem attachment well under the cap like a skirt, and does not have a hollow stem. The stem is filled with a cotton like fluff that you wont find in a true morel.
Verpa bohemica may or may not be toxic. Its toxicity is still up for debate by science, and only some people maybe suceptible to the low levels of toxin. It is eaten by many people, but it’s suggested that consumption be limited to small amounts at any given sitting. The potential toxin is Gyromitrin which may or may not be produced by the mushroom in small amounts. When ingested in small quantities, this toxin can produce nausea, stomach cramps, and diarrhea, and in large quantities can produce convulsions, jaundice, coma or death. Regardless of whether or not it’s toxic, its flavor, unlike that of a morel is described as “unremarkable” and it’s easily distinguished from the true morel by its ridges, stem attachment and lack of a hollow stem.
Gyromitra is a genus of 18 mushrooms that are not closely related to morels, and though they do have ridged caps, there are many obvious differences. The root words of Gyromitra translate to “Convoluted Turban” which is a reasonably accurate description of how it looks. It’s often much wider than it is tall, and the ridges look like folds of cloth rather than a honeycomb. It is also not hollow, which is the dead give-away. Their cap is generally much more red than a morel as well.
Though many species of Gyromita mushrmooms are highly toxic due to the presence of Gyromitrin, they’re often eaten when fully cooked in Scandanavian Countries, or fully dried in Spain. It appears though, that the toxin is not fully removed in these cases, and those that are eating them are just less suceptible to the toxin. A study in the 1970’s estimated that nearly 1/4 of all mushroom related toxicity cases were due to this mushroom, so it’s best left alone. It’s easy to tell the difference between this genus and morels, so eaten by traditional cultures or not, you can make your own choice to stay clear of them.
Half-free morel (Morchella semilibera, M. punctipes, M. populiphila )
Half-free Morels are very closely related to black morels, and are edible. They are in fact, part of the “morel” genus. However, they’re not particularly tasty and very fragile to harvest. If you find one, you do technically have a “morel” but I wouldn’t show it off to your fungus loving friends. They’re considered an inferior species, and not one to write home about.
The main distinguishing feature is that it is “half-free” or that the cap does not seamlessly flow into the stem, but tucks under like legs under a skirt. It also tends to have a very long stem and small cap.
Thimble Morel or Bell Morel (Verpa conica)
Very small barely visible ridges, a small cap, and a skirt like cap attachment to the stalk make Verpa conica easy to distinguish from a true morel. It is questionably edible, with some reports of gasrtointestinal discomfort.
How to Collect and Preserve Morels
When out collecting mushrooms, always use a mesh bag. Why? Because along with the mushrooms, you are carring away the spores. Millions of them. Mushroom spores are free, and instead of taking them with you, they should sprinkle around the woods as you harvest. Think of it as mushroom community service.
Morels are best preserved dried. They dehydrate easily in a dehydrator, or on a mesh screen with a fan running near them. They are quite wet and spongy, so be carful to keep adequate ventilation to prevent mold. It takes nearly a pound of fresh morels to make 1 ounce of dried, which is why they can retail for $16-20 for just an ounce.
Cooking with Morels
Morels are cooked just like you would most mushrooms…sauteed with a lot of butter and oil to rich delciousness. They’re described as “the king of mushrooms” for their earthy, nutty and subtly beefy flavor. I find them best when used to accentuate other early spring tastes like asparagus, wild leeks and fresh spring herbs.
Morel Cooking Resources:
Other Morel Foraging References: