Morels are among the most valued mushrooms in the world. With the information in this post and just a little training, you can join the ranks of the foragers that successfully look for morels in the spring.
IDENTIFYING MOREL MUSHROOMS
Morels are quite unique. You can recognize them at first glance as their caps have ridges and pits. To be 100% sure, cut the mushroom in half from top to bottom. A true morel is hollow in both the cap and the stem. The flesh is thin, waxy, and fragile. The spore print is cream.
TYPES OF MOREL MUSHROOMS
YELLOW MOREL (MORCHELLA ESCULENTA)
Yellow morel is also known as the true morel or common morel. It can be 1-3 inches wide and 2-7 inches tall. The cone-shaped cap is grey when young and becomes yellow with age. It has irregular, honeycomb-like ridges and is fully attached to the stalk, which is white.
It grows under hardwoods and coniferous trees, with a strong preference for weakened or dying elm trees. It really likes disturbed, for example, burned, grounds. It is widespread in America and Europe.
Several very similar species are also considered true morels, like Morchella crasipes. While there are differences between the species, a practical forager doesn’t really need to distinguish the species.
BLACK MOREL (MORCHELLA ANGUSTICEPS)
As you have probably already guessed, the black morel is different in its cap color, which is darker, especially on the surface ridges. It grows in eastern North America. It is also considered a true morel, is hollow, and its cap is attached to the stalk.
There is another species of black morel that grows in northeast North America, Morchella septentrionalis. It is slightly smaller than the typical black morel.
Its most preferred trees are the American ash and the American aspen. Once again, unless you forage for scientific reasons, you don’t really need to distinguish the species.
In Europe, you will also find black morels of the Morchella deliciosa species, as well as several other black morels. As long as they are hollow and have a honeycomb-like cap, they are safe to forage and eat.
Half-free morels are hollow, just like true morels, with honeycomb-like ridges on a conical cap, but the cap is only partially attached to the stalk. They grow mostly by deciduous trees.
Depending on where you live, a half-free morel may be Morchella punctipes (Eastern North America), Morchella populipila (Western North America), or Morchella semilibera (Europe).
Early morels are very similar to true morels, as they belong to the same family Morchellacae.
Early morels appear about 2 weeks before yellow morels and are more common in many areas. Their caps don’t have the pits typical for true morels; instead, they have brain-like folds.
Unlike true morels, early morels usually aren’t hollow, although they may become hollow with age.
I wrote a separate post on early morels for you.
BEWARE OF FALSE MORELS
A false morel has a corrugated cap but no honeycomb-like pits. It isn’t hollow. Only a very reckless forager could mismatch it for a true morel, but such a mushroom would be dangerous; some false morel species are highly toxic, cause severe gastric upset, and even be deadly if not cooked properly.
Other false morel species are edible and actually considered a delicacy. Because of the risk of mismatching them with a poisonous false morel, they are definitely expert mushrooms.
If you are interested in learning them, joining the Facebook group False morels demystified will set you up perfectly.
DON’T CONFUSE MORELS WITH STINKHORNS
It was hard to imagine for me, but I’ve noticed on Instagram that people can confuse morels with stinkhorn mushrooms. And it happens a lot.
Stinkhorns have a similar look but grow from an egg-like volva, usually have a green cap, aren’t hollow, and most importantly, smell like carrion. Knowing this key characteristic, you will never mismatch a foul-smelling stinkhorn for the almost aroma-less morel. But even if you did, stinkhorns aren’t poisonous.
THE MOREL SEASON
Early morels usually appear in early spring, about a week after it stops freezing, once the nights are warm. Yellow morels appear another 7-10 days later, with black morels appearing last another week later. In most areas, the season starts in late March and lasts until mid-May.
If frost strikes back, be careful when foraging morels. Wild mushrooms that froze and unfroze can die and rot.
WILL FROST KILL MORELS?
When a morel freezes, ice tears its cells apart, killing the mushroom, but it may not be obvious from the outside. Beware of consuming morels that froze and unfroze. Putrid mushrooms can cause food poisoning.
Mushrooms contain proteins similar to those in meat. These proteins can decompose into botulinum toxin. If you consume a mushroom that rots for a short time, it may cause nausea. But after a day or more, such mushroom could cause severe food poisoning.
WHAT TEMPERATURE KILLS MORELS?
If the night temperatures fall to 32℉ or lower, morels will die. If the period of frost is brief, there may be no visible damage to them.
FORAGING FROZEN MORELS
It is OK to forage frozen morels as long as they didn’t unfreeze and freeze again. While frost kills morels, it also stops any undesirable processes until the mushrooms unfreeze. If you chose to forage frozen morels, cook them as soon as possible to prevent them from going putrid.
HOW TO RECOGNIZE A PUTRID MOREL
A morel that is visibly fading or has color changes or abrasions on the surface may be old or dead and going putrid. However, putridity may not be obvious at a glance. It is best to toss morels that froze and unfroze or are past their best before date.
WHERE TO FIND MOREL MUSHROOMS
Morels enjoy semi-sunny places. Their most favorite areas are butterbur fields by rivers and creeks and disturbed grounds like piles of mulch or burned areas, but you can find them anywhere on alkaline soil with nutrients if their preferred trees are nearby.
Let’s look into the trees more thoroughly now.
TREE TYPES THAT ASSOCIATE WITH MORELS
You will often find morels around weakened, dying trees or recently dead trees. This is because morels are saprophytic, i.e., decomposing organic matter. (For the same reason, they can grow in burned grounds and on plant litter.)
These are the trees under which you will find morels the most often:
Elm trees have a rough sandpaper-like surface, sprout branches (“water sprouts”) in the lower part of the trunk even if they are very high, and have roots that go up to several feet up the trunk.
In the USA, morels are most often associated with the American elm tree, Ulmus Americana. You can tell it from other elm trees by the size of their leaves.
However, being a mushroom forager, you don’t really need to differentiate between the elm species as morel mushrooms associate themselves with all of them.
Aspen trees have light, smooth bark. Their leaves are heart-shaped with slightly serrated rims. Aspens are known for quaking.
Ashes are typical for their long leaves. Young ones have light, smooth bark; however, as morel hunters, we are interested in older specimens that have grey or grey-beige bark that develops fissures.
A detail of an old ash’s bark and leaves.
You can immediately recognize a cherry tree by its dark, horizontally scared bark that often peels, but remains hard. Cherry leaves are pointed and oval, with rims just slightly jagged. These trees are the shortest of the species that morel mushrooms like.
Cherry bark and leaves
TULIP POPLAR TREES
Tulip poplars have a straight, tall trunk with shallow fissures on the bark. You will recognize them best by their typical four-lobed leaves with round notches.
Tulip poplar tree
The bark of cottonwood trees is light, smooth for young ones, but becomes scared with age. The leaves are triangular, with flat stalked and serrated rims. Cottonwood trees are very similar to poplars; luckily, a morel hunter doesn’t really need to distinguish the two species.
Morel mushrooms enjoy alkaline soil, with a pH from 7.2 to 8.5. You can guess where alkaline soil is yourself, as it is usually darker and near to fields. You can also find information about soil alkalinity online or test it yourself.
ONLINE INFORMATION ABOUT SOIL TYPES
Information about the soil types in some areas may be available online. This USDA page has information about the various soil types in many counties of the United States.
Most European countries maintain a complete geological map with information about the alkalinity of soils in all parts of the country. For a forager, that’s a map of where to look for the trees that morels associate with. I.e., a map to a treasure.
TESTING SOIL YOURSELF
You can check the alkalinity of soil in various places in your area using litmus paper. Collect soil from places that you want to test. Mix the soil with pH-neutral (distilled) water and insert the litmus paper briefly to get an immediate result.
With the information above, finding a basket full of morels becomes quite realistic.
DON’T FORAGE MORELS IN A POLLUTED AREA
Morels absorb compounds from the soil even more than most other mushrooms. Don’t forage them in urban or polluted areas. Also, avoid old morels; morels have a long lifespan for a mushroom, over 2 weeks, and that’s too much time to absorb chemicals from the ground.
Morels are culinary universal; you can use them in almost any kind of meal. Most recipes will have you sauté them in butter or oil for 7-10 minutes before further use. The hollowness of morels predestines them for stuffing.
Before cooking morels, carefully clean them of dirt. A brush works best, especially when removing grains of sand from the pits and folds.
Morel meals have an appealing look.
The aroma of raw morels is mild and resembles bread. Once you cook them, the aroma develops to be more pronounced and mushroomy.
DON’T EAT RAW MORELS
Like many wild mushrooms, morels are edible after heat preparation. Raw morels could cause gastric problems. Cook them for a minimum of 7 minutes, but preferably for 10-15 minutes.
To transport morels, use a basket or an airy foraging bag. Once you bring them home, put them on a plate. Spread them as much as possible and make sure they have sufficient ventilation.
Put the plate in the fridge. Storing them without access to air could cause them to spoil fast and to develop botulinum toxin.
Properly stored refrigerated morels will keep for up to 3 days. If you want to store them for longer, you will need to either dry them, pickle them, or refrigerate them cooked.
Learn more about the storage and preservation of morels in the post How to store mushrooms.
And that’s all you need to know about morels. Happy morel hunting!