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The Wild Morels

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Published on: Mar. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 8, 2010

Morel Mushroom Hunt

No contender comes close to this king of wild mushrooms.

Morels are Missourians' favorite mushroom for good reason. They are delicious to eat, easy to identify and can be hunted during five fabulous weeks in spring. Best of all, you can find them in every county.

At least four different species of morels are found in Missouri. Although there are dozens of local names for each, they are most commonly referred to as black, half-free, common and late morels. The early "red mushroom" is a false morel and cannot be classified with the true morels. The false morels are in the Lorchel family and differ in size, color, shape and spore characteristics.

As is the case with most fungi, the morel mushroom that you see is the fruiting body of an organism that has a complicated life cycle. It is not like a plant with roots, so it cannot be expected to grow like one. It emerges from a complex "mat layer" that develops in the top soil layers. The fruiting body (mushroom) must mature and release spores to complete its life cycle.

Because of wide variations, size is the least dependable trait to identify the different morel species. Morels almost always increase in size as they age, but their growth depends on the moisture, temperature and fertility of the soil.

During their growth period, morels also change color, the shape of their stalk and cap, and the size and shape of their pits. Therefore, it is difficult to distinguish one morel species from another until you learn to recognize the difference between young and mature specimens of the same species.

The Season

April is usually the peak of morel season in southern Missouri, but there's no accurate way to predict its beginning or end. Generally, the season lasts four to six weeks. The exact length depends on the weather and the species of morel. Hot, dry weather quickly ends the season, while cool, moist weather can prolong it to mid-May.

Morels' emergence and development depend on soil temperature, and patterns vary from year to year. When weather causes a sudden increase in soil temperatures, morels can appear overnight. Warm rains, an unusually hot day or two or a few very warm nights can often trigger their emergence, too.

In years when soil temperatures warm slowly, the first morels are late, scattered and slow to develop.

If you start with black morels and end with late morels, you can extend your season to a month or more. If you hunt for only one species, a week or two is usually all you get.

Location

If you rushed ahead to this part to learn how to find the secret spots, well, they're not here. Morels are less predictable than most wild things, and their habits are maddening. They often grow where they shouldn't, and they don't grow where they should. You must enjoy the looking as much as the picking, or you will not last long as a morel hunter.

Sadly, a very high percentage of Missouri's forests and fields contain no morels at all. Many areas that look exactly like spots where you had great success before may not hold a single mushroom. It is easy to blame your eyesight or arriving too early or too late.

Try to find a forest where you know morels have been found before. Exploring totally new ground is still fun and often the only option, but recognize that it is a long shot. You will need to invest some time searching and then learn how to keep your new spots a secret.

Although we can't tell you where to go, we can tell you what to look for.

Half-free Morel (Morchella semilibera)

  • Emerges after the peak of the black morels and slightly before common morels.
  • A very small morel, often found mixed with common morels.
  • The only morel with a "free skirt" type cap.
  • The only morel with the stalk longer in proportion to the cap.
  • Delicious. Best eaten when small. Caps fall off easily at maturity.
  • Prefers wooded areas with ash and elm trees.

Black Morel (Morchella angusticeps/elata)

  • The earliest true morel to appear, often two weeks before the common morels appear.
  • Most likely species to produce the "mother lode."
  • Prefers forested areas with ash trees.
  • Seldom found growing with other morel species.
  • Mild flavor when young, stronger flavor when mature.
  • Mature specimens are often large, fragile and crumbly.
  • Very difficult to see on sunny days. They "hide" in the shadows.
  • Tolerates heavy, repeated pickings better than other morel species.

Common Morel (Morchella esculenta)

  • Emerges in mid-season when black morels are maturing.
  • Most popular and most common morel species.
  • Sometimes argued to be three separate species because of variations during the three stages of maturity. Spore testing shows them to be one species.
  • Usually found singularly or in small patches, sometimes occur in banana like clusters.
  • Large finds in one locale are rare.
  • Found in a wide variety of habitats.
  • Often found under dead and live elm, ash and apple trees.
  • Flavor is choice in all stages, but sometimes tough when mature.

False Morel (Gyromitra species) (Poisonous)

  • Not a true morel, but often called morels by mushroom hunters. Illness and deaths have resulted from eating this fungus, although some people can tolerate them.
  • Found very early in the season.
  • Can become very large.
  • Sometimes known as red morels, red mushrooms, elephant ears or brain mushrooms.
  • Often found around rotted oak tree stumps

Late Morel (Morchella deliciosa)

  • Appears after all other species are over-mature or gone.
  • Their small size (1-3 inches) is disappointing compared to giants.
  • Pits are large and few compared to other species.
  • The least understood and most often overlooked species.
  • Excellent flavor, but often difficult to find enough for a meal.

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