There are at least three species of morels in Missouri. All are hollow-stemmed mushrooms emerging from the ground in the spring, with a somewhat conical cap/head covered with definite pits and ridges, resembling a sponge, pinecone, or honeycomb. In black and yellow morels, the bottom of the head is attached directly to the stem. In half-free morels, the bottom half of the cap hangs free from the stalk. In all cases, the stems of true morels are completely hollow.
Lookalikes: Don’t confuse true morels (Morchella spp.) with similar-looking species that could make you sick or possibly kill you. Don’t eat any wild mushroom unless you’ve identified it as a safe edible and have cooked it thoroughly.
There are many species of sac fungi (phylum Ascomycota) that can resemble morels. These so-called false morels may have wrinkled, floppy-looking, irregular caps that are brainlike or saddle-shaped, and they may be black, gray, white, brown, or reddish. False morels (Gyromitra spp.) and other lookalikes, such as elfin saddles (Helvella spp.), differ from true morels in obvious ways — if you take your time and observe carefully:
- In the various false morels, the cap surface has lobes, folds, flaps, or wrinkles, but it does not have pits and ridges like a true morel. You might say false morel caps bulge outward instead of being pitted inward.
- When you slice a false morel down the middle, the cap and stalk are chambered (not completely hollow).
- The various types of false morels might be found at different times of the year, including spring, but in Missouri, true morels are found only in spring.
- The most commonly encountered false morel in Missouri is the big red false morel, Gyromitra caroliniana. It is a large mushroom with a deeply wrinkled reddish cap and chambered stalk.
It is safest to consider all so-called false morels toxic. While some people have enjoyed eating them for years and may even consider them a favorite wild mushroom, several types of false morels have definitely caused serious illness and death. Whether they will sicken you or not depends on cooking techniques, type of mushroom, and your own sensitivity. We do not recommend eating them.
Height: 2–12 inches.
Habitat and Conservation
Morels are found on the ground in a variety of habitats, including moist woodlands and in river bottoms. They are often associated with ash trees, dying elms, and apple trees, although they are found elsewhere as well, under both hardwoods and conifers. The fruiting bodies (mushrooms) grow out of the ground in late March and through April. They are common but notoriously hard to locate against the forest floor.
Morels are considered choice edible mushrooms. As with all wild mushrooms, be sure of your identifications, and always cook them.
Morels exist most of the time underground as a network of cells (mycelium) connected to tree roots, rotting material, and the soil. In late March, the mycelium develops the thing we recognize as a morel. The mushroom is a reproductive structure. Spores are produced and released from pits in the spongelike cap. Some morel hunters have witnessed morels "smoking" as they release millions of spores.
Most people think of morels when they hear the words "wild mushrooms." The morel's short season, good camouflage, and delectability leads some to keep "their" morel spots a secret. Morels are treasured for their delicious flavor and the fun of the hunt, often a family tradition spanning generations.
Belowground, morels form symbiotic relationships with the roots of trees, helping them get nutrients. As saprophytes, morels decompose dead leaves and wood, returning nutrients to the soil.
Where to See Species
Mushrooms are a lot like plants, but they lack chlorophyll and have to take nutrients from other materials. Mushrooms are neither plants nor animals. They are in a different kingdom — the fungi. Fungi include the familiar mushroom-forming species, plus the yeasts, molds, smuts, and rusts.
Always be cautious when eating edible mushrooms. Be absolutely sure of the ID, and only eat a small amount the first time you try it to avoid a reaction..