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White Morels
Clump of Morels, Morchella esculenta
Photo © 2004 Jim Jung. All rights reserved

Morels!

Morchella spp

There are mushrooms, and then there are Morels.

April is Morel season. And for the three weeks that it lasts it generates an almost religious fervor.

For the true devotee, the daily business of life takes second place to covert visits to secret morel gardens in hidden valleys and well-guarded wood lots. It's the focus of every conversation: from theories on optimal harvesting methods, to discussions of undisclosed secret patches, to the best possible ways to consume them.

It's also one of the last universally recognized natural events. So recognized, in fact, that during the season's peak it forms a nearly unassailable excuse for missing work, family events, even church.

Morels, of course, are edible wild mushrooms. Morels, (for those unfortunate enough to have never tasted them) rank just below black Perigord truffles in taste. And for those who have eaten enough of both fungi to develop a palate, there is serious debate about which is tastiest.

In short, they're delicious.. And they're also impossible to confuse with any other mushroom; a fact which no doubt contributes to their immense popularity.

In our area, morels appear about the same time that the apple trees bloom, apparently responding to the same stimuli as the apple trees, although no one yet has determined exactly what those stimuli are.

Morels in leaves
Photo © 2004 by Jim Jung and liscensors.
All rights reserved

They're also difficult to spot. So difficult, in fact, that I personally believe they have the ability to become invisible at will, revealing themselves only to those they deem worthy.

Shrouded in mystery, inflaming human passions, and able to cloak themselves in invisibility, Morels are no ordinary mushrooms.

A Natural History of Morels

Despite the title above, relatively little is known about this particular fungal complex or its life style in the wild. Morel patches begin life when microscopic morel spores the fungal equivalent of a seed land in suitable habitat and begin growing. Despite the fact that they're found on every habitable continent we have no idea what the ideal conditions are for morel spore "germination", what they germinate on or what they eat while growing into mature organisms.

The morel at this point is unrecognizable as a morel. If you could somehow uncover the actual mushroom "plant" it would look like a random and much branched web of moldy thread. This threadlike organism (called a mycelium) - which branches and burrows extensively through the soil in a manner similar to the roots of vascular plants - is the actual mushroom organism. (What we call mushrooms are actually just the fruiting body of the organism and are equivalent to flowers in vascular plants.)

The mycelium grows underground for an indeterminate length of time - perhaps months or even several years - before it stores enough food to produce its fruiting body - the actual morel. (Individual stands of mycelia can apparently measure their life spans in centuries.) This mushroom mycelium lives underground year round and - assuming the year is a good one and the organism is mature - produces small "buttons" of fleshy, compact mycelia just below the soil at strategic points along its length during late summer or early fall. These buttons (usually) remain dormant throughout the fall and winter and come spring with its rising temperatures and increased rainfall some of them swell and grow into the fruiting bodies that we call morels. Occasionally fruiting is triggered in the fall and at least a few of these buttons can develop (under the right circumstances - which are unknown) into mature mushrooms. This, however is a fairly rare occurrence. Morels appear when the ground temperature four inches below the surface reaches 55 degrees Fahrenheit and ceases when the ground temperature reaches 62 degrees.

It seems highly likely that morels are mycorhizal fungi, that is, they live symbiotically on the roots of some species of trees. Apples, elms, poplars and ashes are all noted in the literature for being indicator species to locate potential morel hot spots and dead or dying trees of these species tend to produce prodigious crops of morels under the right conditions. That said however, morels don't require these trees to produce mushrooms. Morels have been found in pots of chrysanthemums, in parking lots, golf courses and other odd corners too numerous to mention with none of the above named species anywhere in sight, so these odd little fungi - while they may partner with or favor particular species - are not completely dependent on them. As nearly all researchers have noted, "Morels are where you find them." Still all morels I've encountered have always occurred in patches and are usually clearly associated with one of the above-named tree species.

Rarely individual morels can grow to gigantic (relative to their normal sized compatriots) size. I've discovered all of these giants quite late in the season (mid to late April in our area). They can reach up to a foot in height and are quite startling to encounter the first time!

Half-Free Morel
Half-Free Morel, Morchella semilibera
Photo © 2004 Jim Jung.
All rights reserved

Hunting Morels

Morels in our area begin appearing in mid March. The earliest species to appear is the Half-Free Morel (Morchella semilibera) - a relatively flavorless and disappointing mushroom consisting mostly of stem and just a tiny cap - but a morel nonetheless. These are followed within a week, and often simultaneously, by the Black Morels (Morchella elata) aka Peckerheads, a much more robust and flavorful fungus that can reach four to six inches in length. They're also the largest species in our area on average and are the only one (in my experience) to attain to gigantism. The first of April marks the earliest appearance of the tastiest and most sought after species: the White Morel (Morechella esculenta) which is a pale white or gray and ordinarily reaches four or five inches in height. The so-called Yellow Morel also appears late in the season but whether these are indeed a separate species or merely variants of esculenta is still in dispute.

Black Morel
Black Morel, Morchella elata
Photo © 2004 Jim Jung. All rights reserved

Morels occur most commonly in early succession forests marked by elms, ashes and poplars (all pioneer species) so concentrate your hunting in these areas. They prefer moist, well-drained land and usually are found in clumps or colonies with several to many morels appearing within feet of one another (so if you find one, look around for more!). As mentioned above they seem to favor certain tree species over others. They are also more abundant the year following a burn - though whether this is due to their higher visibility due to lack of cover, or because they receive critical nutrients from plant ashes is unknown. Forests containing the above-named tree species and having a well- established herbaceous layer - notably Christmas Ferns and May Apples - are good places to look.

Morels are difficult to spot so be very observant. Very often two or more passes through an area are required before the first one is spotted. However once one is located its neighbors suddenly pop into view fairly quickly.

Harvesting Your Catch

Morels should always be cut and never just plucked from the ground. Plucking may damage the mycelial thread that produces the mushrooms by severing it and reducing the mycelial net's size thereby jeopardizing future harvests. Tests are currently underway in Oregon to test this hypothesis, but until definite evidence is in it's better to be safe than sorry. So cut rather than pluck. Your mushrooms will stay cleaner, require less washing and taste better as a result.

Transport your harvested mushrooms in mesh bags to allow air to circulate among the individual mushrooms and to release spores back onto the forest floor to encourage future generations. Keep them cool and dry and never leave them in the sun where they can sweat and spoil. Treat them like any other food and all will be well.

Preparation and Cooking

Use as little water as possible to clean your harvest. The flavor is in the spores and the more they're washed or soaked the more flavor is lost. Let them drain and dry until cooking.

I invariably eat morels after frying them in butter with a little pepper and savory added during cooking to enhance the flavor. DO NOT drown them in herbs or batter fry them since this tends to destroy and mask their delicate flavors while emphasizing the herbs or batter.

Eggs and morels are a great combination. Morel soup is also tasty. Sauteed morels are, in my humble opinion, the best way to treat them.

They're also good substituted for the oyster mushrooms in Ruby's Hot and Sour Oyster Mushroom Soup

Always cook your morels before eating. All mushrooms (including the grocery store agarics) contain a substance called Monomethyl Hydrazine (MMH) - an important ingredient in high octane rocket fuel - that is a proven carcinogen. The heat from cooking drives this volatile compound off and while morels don't contain enough MMH to be overtly dangerous in their raw state, it's never wise to knowingly ingest carcinogenic substances. Besides they taste better cooked!


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The information on this page is tailored to Southern Illinois, Southwest Indiana, Western Kentucky, and Southeast Missouri

Copyright © 2004 Jim Jung
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