It’s April, that means MOREL SEASON! Not only are they delicious, but really fun to hunt. They are fairly simple to identify, but can be confused with some other, not so tasty, look-a-likes if you are not 100% sure what you are looking for. That is always a danger when you are eating a mushroom from the wild. So how do you identify them?
Morel caps have ridges and pits, and the stem is usually a lighter color than the cap like a light sand, yellow, or gray color. If you cut Morels lengthwise, you’ll find that they are completely hollow from stem to the top of the cap. A very important feature is that the cap is attached to the stem1. (See figures 2 and 3.)
There is another mushroom that looks like a Morel, and is okay to eat. It’s known as the Half-free Morel. It’s called half-free because the cap is not connected at the bottom, but connects half-way up the cap. These have a smaller cap, but resemble a Morel in every other way and can range from a light yellow to a dark brown2 (See figure 4 and 5.)
Some toxic mushrooms can be mistaken for Morels: the False Morel (Verpa bohemica) and the Beefsteak Mushroom (Gyromitra esculenta). The False Morel cap does not attach until the very tip top of the stem, and if you cut lengthwise, the stem will be filled with a white cotton-like fiber3. Sometimes these fibers are gone and the stem appears hollow so pay attention to the cap. The cap is also wrinkled not pitted like the True Morels. (See them compared to Morels in Figure 6.) The color can be from a yellow to a dark brown and the stem is lighter than the cap3. If you eat this one, you may experience dizziness, nausea and vomiting.
The Beefsteak Mushroom another potentially poisonous look-alike. You may have heard of some people eating these, but please do not risk it. They contain a nasty chemical called monomethyl hydrazine (MMH) which can cause vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, and sometimes even death4. Symptoms can be delayed and the toxin level can vary between mushrooms, but there is no way to know if it is safe to eat. Just don’t eat it! It’s not worth the risk. The mushroom has irregularly lobed cap that has reddish and yellowish brown coloring with a pinkish white stem. I think the cap looks like a brain. This mushroom if you cut it lengthwise is not hollow, but you may find hollow pockets in the flesh5. (See how they compare to Morels in Figure 7.) These are two of the most commonly confused mushroom but this blog does not cover all of them, so when in doubt, throw it out.
A mushroom is not worth getting sick over. You should never eat anything that you are not 100% is safe. Do not rely solely on the information in this blog to help you identify safe and unsafe mushrooms. It may not contain enough detailed information to properly identify your finds. There are lots of good mushroom books that go through each species so check with your local library. It may also be a good idea to go out with an experienced Morel hunter the first few times. Once you know what you are looking for, you will have a blast and a very tasty dinner.
So where should you go to find morels? You might think that looking at the ground is the best option, but what you want to do is look for trees. Morels tend to grow with certain tree species. There are many species of fungi that live in association with trees and can even be essential to that tree’s health and the health of the forest. If you want to learn more about these, please leave a comment telling me so. The trees you want to look for are Ashes and Elms. Sometimes you can find them under Sycamores, Tulip Poplars, and Cottonwoods too. For more help, check out Mushroom Farm. It has a map and pictures of the bark of the trees you are most likely to find morels with.
Just one last thought. Remember that the mushrooms are the way these fungi reproduce. If you find a patch of them, maybe leave one or two so it can still reproduce. Or if the cap appears to be drying or shriveling, leave that one. It won’t taste as good, and it’s letting spores go to make more Morels in the future. Happy Hunting!