The True Morels, Morchella esculenta, elata and semilibera are not only some of the most delicious wild mushrooms in North America but they are also some of the easiest to safely identify.
They can be found for a few weeks each spring, fruiting just after the first spring flowers appear. That of course, could be widely variable and difficult to distinguish in our warmest states. Here in Central NY they start about the first week of May and can be found for about a month. The flowering of Trilliums is a good indicator for us that Morels aren't far behind. Your best bet to figure out the morel season in your region is to contact or join a local mushroom club and get out there and look!
Morels can be found in a variety of habitats. I have had my best luck in areas with moist, sandy soils in stands of mixed woods, Apple, Ash, Cottonwood and Elm trees. Check hillsides and disturbed areas with limestone and shale. Stream beds and gorges can be interesting hunting grounds too. In my region Morchella semilibera, usually appears first, followed within days by Morchella elata, and then days after that Morchella esculenta. In the peak of the season you may find all three in the same area.
The diagram below compares the three native American morel species, from left to right: Morchella semilibera, the half free morel, Morchella elata, the black morel and Morchella esculenta the yellow or white morel. All three are delicious edibles and can be dried easily but the yellow and black morels are the most sought after. Don't be misled by the common names of these mushrooms referring to colors, particularly Morchella esculenta the "Yellow" morel. It appears in a wide variety of colors, from light gray to dark gray, light tan to golden brown, pale yellow to yellow to dark brown. The shape of the cap can vary as well, from tall slender and pointed to short squat and round. Some mycologists argue that there are different species or sub-species in this group but if you find a mushroom in the Spring with a honey combed, pitted cap you have a pretty sure indicator that you have a morel, whatever the taxonomic name is.
Beware of mushrooms that do not have true pits or cavities and are smooth, brain-like and shiny. These spring mushrooms, often called "False Morels" or "Early Morels" are from either the genera Verpa or Gyromitra and though there are people who eat these mushrooms without incident, there have been fatalities from them as well. Clearly, consumption of any mushrooms from these genera can be a very dangerous practice.
In older texts Verpa bohemica and V. conica are listed as edible but new evidence is contradictory. Newer texts list Verpa bohemica (the Wrinkled Thimble Cap) as poisonous and best avoided. Symptoms include severe stomach cramps and a loss of muscle coordination.
The other so-called "Early Morels" of the genus Gyromitra, G. esculenta and G. infula contain the toxin Gyromitrin, AKA: monomethylhydrazine. Related species including G. gigas, G. korfii and the genera Verpa and Helvella may also contain traces of hydrazines. Believe it or not, monomethylhydrazine is a key component of rocket fuel. Eating mushrooms containing hydrazines raw has caused many documented fatalities (mostly in Europe.) Cooking and/or drying can remove the volatile Gyromitrin poison, hence people have eaten these mushrooms for years with no ill effects. BUT... cooking Gyromitra esculenta (pictured at lower right) can release enough toxin into the air that simply sampling the aroma of your saut pan can lead to severe poisoning or even death.
BEST BET WITH GYROMITRA, VERPA AND
Part of The Forager Press Family-Friendly Network
Copyright The Forager Press, LLC