When I was down at the station on Thursday, I happened to spot a mushroom growing at the side of one of the trails. It’s a morel, a mushroom of the genus Morchella. Morels are one of the most distinctive of the mushrooms. They look a bit like crumpled sponges, with honeycomb-like creases and folds in the cap. They come in four identifiable varieties, that roughly correspond to species: yellow, gray, black, and “spike”, the latter having an exaggerated stem and reduced cap. The ones we have at the station are yellow morels.
They’re a springtime species, coming up in late April or early May in our area, but as early as late February or early March in the far southern reaches of their range. They’re not uncommon at the site, I see them every year, usually predictably along certain trails. I just serendipitously spotted the one at trailside as I was walking through to check a net. Their colour makes them blend in with the debris that covers the ground at this time of year, but they’re fairly obvious once you spot them. They can grow to be quite large, in some instances to six or eight inches or more. Other individuals may be comparatively tiny, less than an inch. The very first one I spotted was perhaps four inches tall, but most of the rest were smaller, just two to three. Size is dictated more by the available resources the mushroom has to grow than by the species.
Morels tend to be associated with the east, and especially the Great Lakes region, but they can actually be found in many areas across the continent. The coastal side of the western mountain range is also a good spot to find them, but virtually every habitat, other than the dry desert habitats or the swamps of the southeast, can potentially be home to morels. Like virtually any other fungus, morels grow from a subterranean fungal root system called a mycelium. This mycelium may spread over quite a broad range of ground (I couldn’t find a number online, but one of our volunteers thought on the order of a hundred or more square metres, or over 1000 square feet), and the fruiting bodies, what we recognize as the species, can pop up at any spot within this network, where the microhabitat conditions are most ideal.
They are often associated with forest fire sites, where they grow prolifically in the first two or three years after the burn. The reason for this isn’t stated, but perhaps could simply be due to the sudden open canopy and abundance of nutrients in the soil. In non-fire areas the mushrooms can also be quite abundant, and are often associated with certain tree species, especially in the east. Old apple orchards are a good site, as are ash, sycamore, tuliptree, cottonwoods, and dead or dying elms. Cottonwoods are the primary tree species in the habitat surrounding the station, and the morels do well there. Despite these observations, morels are notoriously difficult to cultivate, especially on a large enough scale to be commercially viable, the way white mushrooms are. Most are wild-picked, and sold as delicacies.
Morels are highly edible, and in fact are a favourite among even some who aren’t so keen on mushrooms in general. Their subtle taste has been likened to mild fish (in some areas the mushrooms take the name “dryland fish” for this reason), and they’re recommended in dishes where the other flavours are likewise quiet, such as on pasta or rice. Mushrooms collected from the wild need only be lightly washed to be eaten; in fact, soaking them will ruin their flavour. However, they MUST be cooked prior to being eaten, as they do in fact contain a very small amount of toxin – it is enough to cause a reaction when raw, but is destroyed once the mushroom is cooked (although Wikipedia comments that occasionally even cooked morels, when consumed with alcohol, can sometimes cause a reaction). There are tons of recipes for morels on the web. I must admit I’m not a mushroom-eater myself (I have a thing about eating fungus), and so I’ve never personally tried them.
Although morels are generally pretty darned distinctive, there is another mushroom that can possibly be confused for them by novices. It goes by the name of false morel, for the reason that it superficially resembles the real morels. However, it is highly toxic and cannot be eaten (although the same volunteer recited a phrase he’d heard once: “All mushrooms are edible, but some can only be eaten once.”). It tends to be chunkier than true morels, and the folds in the cap more resemble the convolutions of a brain surface than the walls of a honeycomb. However, the easiest way to tell the two apart if you’re unsure is to slice off the top of the cap. True morels are hollow, while false morels are solid inside.
Morel hunting is a popular pasttime among northeastern naturalists and fans of the mushroom as a culinary delicacy. There are morel hunting associations, morel festivals (many of which seem to take place in Michigan), morel photo groups, and morel discussion boards. They even have dedicated morel blogs, and have been recently mentioned on some other blogs I read: The Ohio Nature Blog, and Bill of the Birds (who, with his son, found a whole pile in their old orchard). There seems to be a whole subculture built around morel hunting! Of course, if you’re the lazy sort and prefer the eating over the hunting, you can order your own backyard morel-growing kit. When picking mushrooms from the forest, most sites say to pluck them by gently twisting at the base, such that you break the stem leaving the bottom in the soil so that the mycelium isn’t damaged and future morels can grow from it. I am prompted to include, as well, a reminder that nothing should be removed from public parks or nature reserves, following the philosophy, “take only photographs, leave only footprints.”
This seems to have been, by most accounts, a good year for morels. Most hunters seem to be reporting bumper crops. After finding that first individual at the station, some hunting about turned up a few more, and then more after that. In fact, the more we looked, the more we spotted. There were probably easily a couple dozen individual mushrooms just in the few areas we searched. This is the most I’ve seen at the station, but I’m not certain if that’s because there are more this year, or I was just looking more closely this spring. Although the other volunteer took a batch home, I was happy to have fun with the hunt and just know that they were there, and leave them for the insects to enjoy.