The First Morel
by Leon Shernoff

This is not an article on where to find morels (no one can tell you that!) but rather on when they come up and in what order. Thereís no other way to know where you are in the season, since the progress what comes up in the Spring depends on the weather and the climate, not on dates. This is especially true since the climate has been so irregular lately (Hel-lo, global warming!) - - we haven't had a ďtypicalĒ Winter and Spring in Illinois for quite some time.

Scarlet Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea), photographed by Pam Kaminski
Scarlet Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea)
In general, the first mushrooms to fruit in the Spring are Ascomycetes. Now, a lot of people think that Ascomycetes are weird - not like healthy, normal gilled fungi. Your cup fungi - - black, red, and orange - - are Ascos, as are morels themselves. A new member of the Illinois club once said to me "Now I know: if it looks like it came from outer space, it's an Ascomycete!" But once you realize that both morels and truffles are Ascomycetes, you start to gain a lit-tle more respect for the phylum. Add to this that bakerís and brewerís yeasts are also Ascomycetes, and you start to get a picture of how important they are for human consumption, and indeed for human civilization.

Narrowing it down a little more, the first easily-spotted-and-recognized Ascomycetes to fruit in the Spring are in the Sarcoscypha (Scarlet Cup) and Urnula (Black Tulip) genera. You can find various species of these beautiful cup fungi in most field guides. However, if youíre finding fresh, bright Scarlet Cups and really dark, not-yet-opened Black Tulips, then itís too early for morels (in fact, itís too early for virtually anything besides the cup fungi). Go away and come back tomorrow (or next week). Or just enjoy seeing these early mushrooms.

False Morel (Verpa conica), photo by Fred Stevens
False Morel (Verpa conica), photo by Fred Stevens
Next come the False Morels, the Gyromitras and the Verpas. Every year, people are poisoned by these mushrooms, thinking that they are morels. Verpas are sometimes called thimble-caps: the cap of the mushroom is shaped sort of like a brownish thimble, and the stalk of the mushroom grows right up inside the thimble, like a finger. The stalk is attached to the cap at the top, as if the tip of the finger is intergrown with the thimble. It's also easy to pop the cap off of the stem, at which point the stem really does look like a finger.

There are two species of Verpa: Verpa conica, in which the cap is smooth, and Verpa bohemica, in which it is wrinkled. I am much more likely to mistake Verpa bohemica for a true morel, but its stalk usually turns reddish towards the top, which gives it away.

A few people do eat Verpas, but this isn't a good idea. At least some people who eat them suffer from severe cramping and lack of muscular coordination, neither of which is good if you have to drive or operate heavy machinery. The chemical that causes these symptoms is unknown, but it's probably some strange alcohol or other flammable carbohydrate. The morels and false morels are mycorrhizal fungi, which means that they live in a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding trees. The fungi function as an extended root system for the trees, helping it take in water and minerals. In return, the fungi get quite a bit of sugar from the trees. Once the fungus has acquired some sugars, it converts them into something that the tree can't handle, so that (what with all the flow of stuff back and forth) the tree doesn't end up taking the sugars back again. In most of the gilled mushrooms, the sugars get converted to exotic alcohols and fats (lipids); in the Ascos, the sugars often get converted to gasoline-like compounds which are not healthy for a person to ingest. Like I said, no one knows what the toxin in Verpas is, but I figure it's one of those compounds, because the symptoms are sort of like drunkenness, but without any of the pleasant effects. Sort of like wood alcohol, but with an even stranger alcohol.

I guess the people who eat them figure that if they don't suffer from those symptoms it's okay; but I tend to feel that even if you don't see any ill effects at the moment, who knows what it's doing to you in the long run? As it is, not many people eat them outside of the Pacific Northwest, because that's the only place that they really occur in quantity.

Diagram of False Morels vs. True Morels
Diagram of False Morels vs. True Morels Like I said, Verpas have a cap which is attached to the stalk right at the top, and it sort of folds down over the stalk like a thimble. True morels, on the other hand, are attached to the stalk at the edge of the cap, not the center. Itís as if someone clamped the stem part of the mushroom tight, and just inflated the top part like a balloon. You can see this in specimens of false and true morels by slicing them in half down the middle.

While true morels are hollow, Gyromitras have a different kind of inside: many layers inside the outside shell are folded in on one another. Basically, a true morel is built kind of like a chocolate santa (although, in the case of Morchella semilibera, it's a chocolate santa that's wearing a mini-skirt). Gyromitras look (in cross-section) like a chocolate santa that has eaten a couple of other chocolate santas, and is having trouble getting them digested. The Gyromitra painting just below is more typical in this regard that the diagram to the right.

False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta), From Eugen Gramberg's Pilze Unserer Heimat (1913)
False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta)Gyromitras also have their own special color: the cap is usually a reddish brown color, which gives them one of their common names: beefsteak morels. The true morels are sometimes a blackish brown, or a pale tan, but they never have those reddish tints to them. As you can see in the picture, the cap of the false morels is often quite wrinkled, but it's quite different from the ridged honeycomb of the true morels. This wrinkling gets called "brain-like" in the books, but if you look at the pictures, youíll have to admit that these make pretty deformed brains!

Gyromitras also have their own special poisoning syndrome, in which the toxic ingredient is MonoMethyl Hydrazine, or MMH. MMH is a gasoline-like compound that has been used as a liquid rocket fuel. Like all these gasoline/alcohol-type compounds, MMH is very easy to evaporate, so people prepare them by boiling them, in order to boil the MMH off. The problem is you can't really be sure that all of it is gone, and sometimes the cook gets sick from inhaling the fumes. Personally, I think that we have enough long-term problems with all the traces of pesticides and fertilizers that end up in our bodies - - there's no need to add rocket fuel to the mix. I have often wondered what would happen if you touched a match to a Gyromitra - - would it just go up in flames, like a torch? Maybe someone out there can try the experiment and let me know what happens. You might not want to be holding the mushroom in your hand at the time.

Gyromitras are usually bigger than true morels, and so appeal to the greed in all of us. They are also heavier than true morels, because of all those internal folds. I was really surprised, the first time I picked one up - - they are much heavier than you would expect (especially since they're mostly hollow). Michael Kuo, who runs the website http://www.mushroomexpert.com, used to have a line up on there that said "If you hear someone brag about how heavy their morel was, you are talking to an idiot."

Verpas are the first of the morel-like mushrooms to pop up in the Spring, followed closely by the Gyromitras. So although I advise you not to eat them, they are an indication that the season is underway, and true morels are just around the corner.


Half-free Morel (Morchella semilibera), photo by Pam Kaminski
Half-free Morel (Morchella semilibera) The first "real" morel to come out is the Half-Free Morel, which immediately follows the False Morels and overlaps in time with the Black Morels and (perhaps) the Yellow ones. This one is a little tricky to identify, since the attachment of the head to the stalk is intermediate between the style of the false and the true morels: while the stalk is not centrally attached, as in the false morels, the edge of the head hangs just a little bit over, like a mini-skirt. Hence the name: the head surface is partially free of the stalk. It doesn't fold down alongside the stalk like the Verpas, though - - it sort of sticks out a little, like a ballerina's skirt. The head, furthermore, is clearly "morel-like", that is pitted like a honeycomb rather than just wrinkled. This characteristic should enable you to distinguish it from its poisonous relatives with confidence. The Half-Free Morel is often more pointy than the other true morels, and the cap isn't as big. Large ones sometimes used to go under the name Morchella hybrida, but these are no longer considered a distinct species.

The honey-comb cap is the main way to tell the true morels from the false ones. True morels have actual ridges that divide the cap into different regions, like an irregular honeycomb. In false morels, the cap is smooth, or wrinkly, but it never forms definite ridges. Once I took a woman on her first morel trip, and she told me that there was a mushroom growing in her communal garden but she didnít pick it "because it had holes in it." Once I showed her a picture, she realized that it was a morel. Of course, it was gone by the time we went to look for it. Another difference between the false and true morels is that the true morels have a sort of pebbly texture on the entire stalk and inside the mushroom. The "pebbles" are really small, but they still can be seen in most of the photos accompanying this article. Verpas have a smooth stalk and interior. Gyromitras are often sort of "muscular" in texture on the stalk, but they don't usually get all pebbly like the true morels.

Black Morel (Morchella elata or Morchella angusticeps), photographed by Pam Kaminski
Black morel (Morchella elata or Morchella angusticeps), photographed by Pam Kaminski

After the half-frees come the "typical" morels, the ones that everyone thinks of when you talk about morels. There are two main groups, the yellow and the black. In the black morels, at least the ridges of the honeycombed head are black, and the entire head gets very dark. The yellow ones come up a sort of ivory color, which yellows somewhat as they age. In Illinois, some people distinguish call the young ones "grey"s and distinguish them from "yellow"s. But the greys will turn into yellows as they mature, though they may stay grey if they're growing in deep shade.

Note that the yellows can get quite dark if they stay out for long. The real way to tell which type you have is not by overall darkness, but by comparing the ridges of the honeycomb with the pits. If the ridges are darker than the pits, you have a black morel; if they are lighter, you have a yellow one. The ridges can be thick or thin in either kind. Often, they will start out fleshy; and then as they age, their outer edges will narrow to a point. The black morels come out a week or two before the yellow/grey/white ones, giving us the following chart of the season:


 

 

Common Name

Broadest Scientific Name

Other species or names

Special habitat

Week 1

Scarlet Cup

Black Tulip

Sarcoscypha coccinea

Urnula Craterium

S. occidentalis

Everywhere

Week 2

False Morels

Verpa bohemica

Gyromitra esculenta

Gyromitra brunnea

V. conica

G. fastigiata

Gyromitra infula

V. conica: apples

G. esculenta: pines

Phase 3

Ĺ-Free Morels

Morchella semilibera

M. hybrida

tulip poplars

Phase 4

Black Morels

Morchella elata

M. angusticeps

M. conica

burnt ground, pines, tulip poplars

Phase 5

Yellow Morels

(White Morels)

Morchella esculenta

M. deliciosa

M. crassipes

old/dying elms and apples; tulip poplars

By comparing what you find with the chart, you can tell where you are in the season.

Names, Names, Names

Yellow Morel (Morchella esculenta), from Eugen Gramberg's Pilze Unserer Heimat (1913)
Yellow Morel (Morchella esculenta) How many species there are within each group is debatable. When I was first learning my mushrooms, each group (black and yellow) was supposed to have a "giant" species (angusticeps and crassipes), and these were already acknowledged to be probably just a "normal" elata or esculenta which had been left alone long enough to reach its full growth. Nowadays, angusticeps is used for the black morel found in Eastern North America through the Great Plains. Note that this is the correct spelling, by the way: it's not "augusticeps"; "angust" is Latin for "narrow", so angusticeps means "narrow head". Elata is the one found in the Western US and in Europe, the one that likes burned ground. Angusticeps doesn't care: we can have all the forest fires you can imagine back east and in the Great Plains, and it won't make a bit of difference in our morel crop. I personally spent several frustrating years as a young man scouring the remains of NY fires, without having any luck at all.

At the NAMA foray last year, Tom Volk said that the name M. angusticeps is being incorrectly applied: he looked up Peck's original definition and it's clearly a yellow morel, not a black one. So we can look forward to a name change there in a few years. And no one uses the name crassipes any more.

Gary Lincoff only has entries for one black morel and two yellow morels in the Audubon field guide. Heís told me that he would prefer to do only one for the yellows, but he doesnít know whether to call deliciosa or esculenta the "true" yellow morel. By now, though, esculenta seems to be "winning". In contrast, European field guides feature a finely distinguished palette of yellow and black morel "species": umbrina, conica, vulgaris, etc., each carefully distinguished from the other by minute details of shape and habitat. According to Gary, the French recognize 14 different species of morels in this manner. Here in America, weíre happy just to find them.

Peter Katsaros did an experiment where he found a nice clump of black morels which were quite small and pointy. They looked like textbook examples of M. conica. He left them where the were and came back every few days to take a time-lapse photograph of them. Over a period of two and a half weeks, they gradually swelled up to look more like M. elata, and finally got all big and puffy like what was then called M. angusticeps. Then he came back and found that a squirrel had eaten them. A noble sacrifice for science!

More recently, Pam Kaminski has done the same thing, and you can see the photos that she took (over a period of a month!) on her website at http://pkaminski.homestead.com/morelgrowth.html

"Grey" morel (Morchella esculenta), photo by John Denk
Grey morel (Morchella esculenta), photo by John Denk By way of closing, let me discuss the chart in a little bit more detail. Each of the "phases" listed in the chart lasts for about five days, except for the first one, which is about a full week. This is approximate, for the temperate East; your individual mileage may vary. This is a schedule of the onset of each speciesí fruiting, not the duration of the fruiting. As you move down the chart, you get more and more of these species fruiting at the same time. The time-table gets slowed down, of course, if the weather stays chilly, and speeds up if it gets warm quickly. Last year it suddenly got warm at the end of April, and everything came up at once! Vigilant observation of what is fruiting is your only reliable guide!

I wasnít sure whether to include the last column in the chart ("special habitat"). As many people have said, morels are where you find them. But morels are also famous for appearing in certain special habitats, and the interesting thing is that different species favor different habitats. For instance, the Black Morels are the ones that grow on burnt ground (but only west of the Great Plains), and the yellow ones are the ones that favor the old apple orchards and dying elm trees. This information is mainly to advise you on what sorts of spots to search at different points in the season. Note also that some of the false morels occur in the same sorts of habitats as the true ones. False morels are pretty good morel-indicators: that is, if you find false morels in a location, itís probably a good place to look for true ones a little later in the season. Of course, this indicator is only as good as the other ones of habitat and so onÖ One last point: it might seem from the chart that the best place to look in is a forest with tulip poplars (which I learned as "tulip trees"). I personally hate looking for morels under tulip poplars: the mushrooms occur singly, spread out over the area, not (occasionally) in big clumps like they do in the other habitats. Iím not a good morel-spotter, so itís hard for me to find them when theyíre spread out like this. My father, on the other hand, is color-blind and hence used to spotting dark-brown things (mushrooms) against a dark-brown background. The first morel I ever picked was one where he told me to stop and look about four inches behind my forward foot. I still couldnít see it until I brushed it with my hand and it moved. Thatís what hunting under tulip-poplars is like for me.

Every mushroom discussed in this article is an Ascomycete!

In case you didnít know, the title of this article refers to the most famous mushroom carol of all:

The first morel the shepherds did see
In the springtime beneath a dying elm tree:
Morel, morel,
Morel, morel!
Where we find them we never will tell,
Morel!

 

 

Mushroom, the journal for all seasons