The 2015 morel mushroom season is fast approaching in the United States, and here in my home state of North Carolina, local mycophiles have started to post previous years’ pictures to local forums and excitedly speculate about when the black morel mushrooms are going to make an appearance. And I have started dreaming about our local black morels, Morchella angusticeps, several times a week.
If you are unfamiliar with morel mushrooms, I encourage you to take a peek at this post, which covers key features of morels, lookalike species, and some habitat/distribution and ecological information about North America’s 19 currently recognized species of morels. All morels are good to eat, although like all mushrooms and foods, some people are allergic to them. They must be cooked, however, because they can make you ill if you consume them raw.
The basics can be summed up thusly: there are, at a minimum, 19 distinct species of morels, which are all members of the Morchella genus, in North America. Less than half of these species occur in North Carolina and other parts of the eastern United States. These mushrooms are generally split into two categories: black morels and yellow morels, with one oddball morel (Morchella rufrobrunnea) that is set aside from its fellows on account of its evolutionary differences from other species.
Black Morel Identification Features
There are numerous species of black morel mushroom, but I will primarily focus on Morchella angusticeps, the particular black morel that resides in North Carolina and other states east of the Rocky Mountains. Black morels have ridged and pitted caps that looks like the fungus decided that it really liked the aesthetics of a honeycomb. This ridged and pitted cap structure is a signature feature that black morels share with other mushrooms in the Morchella genus.
Morel mushrooms have few lookalikes, but I recommend that you look into some information on Gyromitra mushrooms in particular if you are concerned about picking the wrong specimens in the woods. Although Gyromitra do not look like true morels at all, some of the words used to describe them are the same: hollow stem, warped and brain-looking cap. Unfortunately Gyromitra mushrooms have been mistakenly collected by inexperienced morel hunters in the past. Also unfortunately, Gyromitras can be deadly poisonous, even though they are quite delicious.
Morchella angusticeps is often called Morchella elata in older mushroom identification field guides, and it only recently has been fully clarified as a distinct species from the west coast black morels, of which there are several different varieties. There is another black morel that grows in the eastern United States called Morchella septentrionalis, but it only occurs at northern latitudes (Maine, the northern bits of the Great Lakes region, etc.), so if you’re heading out hunting for black morels in North Carolina or the surrounding the states, you’re after Morchella angusticeps.
Morchella angusticeps have a few features that distinguish them from other North Carolina morel mushrooms. Like all morels, Morchella angusticeps have a hollow caps and stems, and as the name implies, black morels are dark in color, although not usually jet black, more often a dark brown that looks like the fur of a black-chocolate lab mix (sorry, I’ve got puppies on the brain today). The eastern black morel usually tops out at about 6 inches in height, including cap and stem. In my experience, black morels are usually pretty petite, and I am perfectly happy when I find one that’s 4 inches high. The caps of black morels is usually a bit shorter than the stem, and the cap is joined to the stem completely (as opposed to hanging free like a skirt).
The pits on Morchella angusticeps are usually aligned vertically and are not very wide side to side. By contrast, Morchella virginiana and Morchella esculentoides, two morels that grow in the North Carolina Piedmont region, have yellowish-tan caps with much more erratic pit and ridge structures; sometimes wide and fat, sometimes slender and vertically arranged. Also, the caps of these two yellow morels take a variety of shapes, but are often oval-ish or egg-shaped. North Carolina’s black morels, by contrast, usually have conical caps. The cap of a black morel can be pointy like a witch’s hat or slightly blunted, but they are only occasionally oval or egg-shaped.
Another feature that helps with identification of the black morel is its stem, which is a tan-colored. Sometimes, the stem has small fuzzy dots of tissue attached to it (see photo above), and often has a funky groove or depression where the cap and stem meet.
Black Morel Season, Habitat, and Distribution
Morchella angusiceps grows earlier than their yellow brethren, usually appearing between March and May, when the soil temperatures are in the mid-50s. In North Carolina, the season for black morels can pass in the blink of an eye if the weather does not favor the mushrooms. For instance, if it warms into the 70s or 80s for a week and then drops back into winter for a bit, black morels will get knocked for a loop, and you might not find them at all, or discover them in a highly distressed and shriveled state. Like all mushrooms, black morels need rain and moisture to grow, so it is ideal if the spring comes on gently and consistently, rather than lion-lambing all over the place. Your first tell that black morels are on the way are the daffodils, those ever-optimistic flowers that bloom on the first nice days of the year. This is not to say that the second you see a daffodil you should call in sick for a few weeks and go black morel hunting…it’s much better to note the flowers, smile to yourself, and make some free time about 3 weeks or a month out.
Morchella angusticeps are thought to have both mycorrhizal and saprobic lifestyles, meaning that in some instances the black morel mushroom mycelium grows on the root system of a tree and “harvests” nutrients from the plant partner, and in other cases the mycelium feeds itself by exuding digestive enzymes into its habitat, dissolving dead organic material and pulling the nutrients back into the mycelial network.
It cannot be denied that black morels fancy certain trees, which means that if you are on the hunt for them, you really want to be on the lookout for their ideal tree buddies. Three of the trees that black morels grow in association with are white ash (Frexinus americana), green ash (Frexinus pennsylvanica), and the tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera).
Tulip poplars in particular are a good place to find several different species of North Carolina Morchella mushrooms, including black morels. Tulip poplars are frequently planted for timber because they mature swiftly and make good lumber on account of their ramrod-straight trunks. This species of poplar has distinctive, tulip-shaped leaves and a shaft-straight trunk makes them easy to identify, even if you are like me and aren’t much of a tree expert.
In general, black morels like wet (although not completely marshy) habitats with their preferred tree partners. They grow just fine in fairly shady areas, but they do need at least some sunlight to thrive. Your best bet, if you want to find North Carolina black morels, is to find a nice poplar grove alongside or near a creek, where the ground makes a polite, quiet little squish underfoot.
Hazards of Morel Hunting
Besides morel misidentification (which is highly unlikely if you do a little homework), there are a couple things to be aware of to stay safe and happy when searching for Morchella. First, don’t get lost while you’re mushroom hunting! Especially given how dense and lush the forests are in the spring, it is easy to lose your way. Go out with a group, keep tabs on one another, and bring along a GPS that you know how to use. Trust me, nothing is worse than having a GPS unit and not knowing how to use it!
Although lovely, black morel habitats are pretty popular with deer ticks and copperhead snakes, so take some bug repellent, a walking stick, wear sturdy shoes that you don’t mind getting a bit muddy, and stay alert so as not to trample upon or startle your local reptiles and other wildlife.
As for deer ticks, it’s almost impossible to keep them at bay at times, even if I tuck my socks into my pants, wear a hat, and take other precautionary measures. Although the percentage of North Carolina deer ticks that carry Lyme Disease is much lower than in other places (such as Northern California or New York State), it is a serious condition and I take pains to avoid deer ticks, especially during morel season, when the little bastards are everywhere. In fact, morel season is the only time of year that I use DEET, and I used to eschew that altogether. However, after one particular black morel hunt, my buddy and I were so covered in deer ticks by the time we returned to the car that we were still finding them in the seats and upholstery for weeks afterwards. Shudder.
Harvesting, Field Cleaning, and Cooking Black Morels
This is very important! If you don’t read a single other part of this post, you should really read the sentence that comes next…wait for it…COOK YOUR MORELS UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES! Morchella mushrooms, black and otherwise, can make you very sick if you eat them raw. One friend of mine, who is an avid mushroom hunter with encyclopedic knowledge of Latin binomials for all sorts of fungi, started his mushrooming career in a rather inauspicious way: he found a black morel in some landscaping material during his lunch break, and knew that it was supposed to be an edible and choice mushroom. With more courage than I will ever be able to summon, he sliced the morel in half and put it in his sandwich. About 8 hours later, he got violently ill and was laid low for a couple days. Although he made a full recovery, this experience was sort of a gateway to responsible wild-crafting for him, and many years later he is the go-to guy for mushroom identification in my hometown of Nevada City, California.
When collecting morel mushrooms in the field, it is best to slice them off at the base of the stem rather than pulling them up whole. The reason for this is three-fold. First, it’s the polite thing to do and does the least damage to the black morel mycelium. Second, the butts of mushrooms can become covered in duff and dirt, especially when you collect them in squishy and muddy habitats. Once this icky stem-butt gets into your bag, grit and mud will promptly work its way into the morels’ deep pits and ridges, making them devilishly difficult to clean. The third reason is a bit of a brag, should you be sharing black morel hunting grounds with others; a properly harvested morel leaves a distinctive ring of tan flesh where the mushroom once was, which will surely be noticed by any morel hunters that are unfortunate enough to be behind you! I once visited one of my favorite black morel spots a few hours late, and was almost undone by the number of little post-mushroom rings I found in the shrubbery where so shortly before were bountiful patches of delicious mushrooms.
Some people insist that wild mushrooms of any sort should not be washed, but I do not believe this strict policy is necessary (with some exceptions, including the chanterelle, porcini, or spring king bolete, all of which soak up water like sponges when you wash them). Washing black morels gently will do them no harm, and I often end up soaking them in cool water for a time so that any grit or dirt will easily wash away. There is another benefit to a brief soak in cool water: some of the morel mushroom spores will wash off your specimens and infuse the water with little bits morel genetic material. I typically soak them for an hour then tip the water out next to the tulip poplars in my back yard. I have yet to cultivate black morels in this way, but hope springs eternal (horrid pun fully intended).
Cooking morels is not tricky, but they should definitely be cooked thoroughly. Luckily, they are hearty enough to take a good bit of heat and stirring in the pan. I will write a post featuring my favorite morel mushroom recipes sometime in this next week or so, but rest assured, it’s perhaps the best edible mushroom I’ve ever tasted.
Morels are also terrific when you dehydrate them; it intensifies their flavor, and you can use warm water to reconstitute them in no time flat! Once you have rehydrated dried morels, use that water in sauces or soups or whatever else you are cooking, because the water takes on tons of delicious flavor from the mushroom!
Black Morel Madness
Morel mushrooms are sort of the royalty of wild culinary mushrooms, and they have an avid following all over the United States. In the Michigan, Boyne City hosts the esteemed National Morel Mushroom Festival, which has been running for nearly 60 years.
I have somewhat romantic feelings towards morels, and they are my constant imaginary companions. I dream about wild mushrooms all the time; sometimes my nighttime visitors are chanterelles, sometimes chicken of the woods, and every now and then I will dream up some colossal Amanita muscaria. However, black morel mushrooms weasel their way into my subconscious more often than any other fungus. I think it’s fair to say that I dream of black morels at least once every two weeks, even if morel season is months away. This time of year, when morel season is approaching and the other mushrooms I fancy are hibernating for the winter, the dreams are nearly constant.
Although it might be a slight mental illness or obsession, I don’t mind seeing black morels in my dreams. After all, they are some of the tastiest mushrooms ever, and hunting for them is a springtime ritual that sort of kick-starts my mushroom foray routine each year. If you are a morel mushroom neophyte, I could not encourage you more strongly to try your hand at hunting these enchanting and delicious little beauties this coming spring.