The Wonderful World of Fungi

Part X – Division Ascomycota – Fascinating Members (Morels)

By: H. Wayne Shew, Ph.D.
NAB Certified Pollen Counter
AAAC Collection Station—Birmingham, Alabama

It has been a while since I wrote anything about that most wonderful group of organisms, the fungi. I thought that it would be appropriate to continue consideration of some of the fascinating members of the Ascomycetes by talking about the morels, genus Morchella. Like truffles that I wrote about in an earlier blog, morels are edible and highly prized by connoisseurs of fine foods. Unlike truffles, morels are native to the United States and can be “hunted” by anyone with no special equipment. They are also easily recognized which means that the amateur mushroom hunter can quickly learn how to identify and collect this prized edible mushroom.
The morels are in the genus Morchella. Estimates differ regarding the number of species in this genus, from three to perhaps more than seventy. There appears to be a great deal of continental endemism in this genus and hence the possibility of large numbers of species.

The morels are closely related to the cup fungi which are in the order Pezizales. The morels produce their asci in a fruiting body that resembles a sponge or a honeycomb (see photos below). Morels vary in size from one inch to as much as four or five inches high, and one to two inches across. Morels are always completely hollow. (Note: if you think something is a morel and you find it has cavities inside the fruiting body rather than being completely hollow, then don’t eat it.) The morel caps are usually conical, oval, or bell-shape, but in some cases can be quite irregular in shape. The caps have ridges with pits in between. The asci produced by morels are located in these pits or recesses in the fruiting body cap. Color varies from grayish or yellowish ridges to black or brown ridges depending on the species of morel. The stem or stipe is whitish in color and usually has short ribs or bumps which gives it a pebbly texture.

No special equipment such as dogs or pigs is needed to find morels, since unlike truffles these fungal fruiting bodies are found above ground. Morels are typically found in forest areas throughout the temperate northern hemisphere and have a mycelium that is associated with tree roots of hardwoods and conifers. Yellow morels tend to be found under hardwoods while black morels tend to be present under conifers. Some species of Morchella can establish mycorrhizal associations with certain trees, while other species function as saprotrophs. Morels are often found in association with ash, elms, hickories, tulip poplars, and in apple orchards.

Numerous efforts have been made to cultivate morels to make them available for consumption year-round, but their cultivation is very difficult. Therefore, the commercial harvesting of wild morels is still the principal way that this fungus finds its way to the marketplace; a multimillion-dollar industry in areas where morels are found in abundance, particular North America, Turkey, China, the Himalayas, India, and Pakistan. Morels produce their fruiting bodies in the spring and hence morel hunting is a common springtime activity. Note: Considerate mushroom hunters put their morels in a mesh bag after collecting them so that spores produced by the fungi can be scattered as they collect their specimens.

If you should choose to try your hand at morel collecting, then be sure that you avoid the “false morels,” fungi belonging to the genera Gyromitra and Verpa. These genera contain species that can cause severe gastrointestinal upset, loss of muscular coordination, or even death. It is also important to thoroughly cook morels that you collect before eating them. Morels should be sautéed, deep fried, or dried and reconstituted before eating. Morels contain hydrazine which is poisonous and carcinogenic. Cooking the morels removes this toxin and allows one to enjoy the ingestion of the subtle, tasteful morels without fear of later regret from being poisoned.

It is a little late (I’m writing this blog in the middle of May and I am in north Alabama) to collect morels in this part of the country this year but you might consider a hunting expedition next spring to find your own morels. There are morel festivals in other parts of the country and if you are a big enthusiast, then you might consider being a participant in the National Morel Mushroom Festival in Boyne City, Michigan or in the Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship. If you should choose to become an amateur morel hunter, then be careful what you collect and where (for example, don’t collect on private property without permission). Good luck and good eating!