Visit the new Wild Ideas blog
Read more about my recent morel finds and more in my new blog at wildideas.us. As in the Wild Ideas column, I’ll be writing about various species and natural processes, with short updates on nature’s progress in between. The blog site will also have lots more photos, slideshows and a nature-event calendar.
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It’s a miracle!
Over my many years of rambling in nature, I've been dragged on in a few hunts for morel mushrooms, all unsuccessful. It wasn't until last month that I finally found my first morel in the wild, by accident.
Here in the Blue Ridge, "true morels" — fungi in the genus Morchella — are often called "merkels" (spelling varies) because finding one is a merkel (miracle). The first one I spotted, on April 19, was a little short of 3 inches tall. It had unceremoniously popped up overnight under a mature tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) on a trail, one I have traveled pretty much every day for 10 years. After looking around, I found another three of the little mushrooms, the same size as the first one or smaller.
I knew some morels favor tuliptrees, which is not a big help in hunting morels where I live. As on many forested properties in the Blue Ridge, the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), in the magnolia family, has replaced oaks in the forest crown where the latter have been logged out and not replaced. As I harvested the ’shrooms, I shook them in hopes that their spores would help spawn further generations of morels in that area.
The most morchellas here are "yellow morels," a group of yellowish-brown mushrooms, including the common morel (M. americana). It’s also called yellow morel, Molly moocher, sponge mushroom, haystack, blond morel and dryland fish. On May 2, I came upon a lone morel at the bottom of the mountain under another mature tuliptree and along a trail I also walk often. This one was a whopping 4 inches.
In trying to nail down which morel species I had found in both places, I consulted several guides. Morels have distinctive pitted caps, looking like someone had sculpted them. After a long journey down the rabbit hole of evolving morel taxonomy, I decided that the large one fit the description and photos of the common morel in my references, as I figured.
The little morels are apparently tulip morels, named for their association with tuliptrees. Like the common morel, they are a yellowish brown but have proportionately longer, more-vertical pits and only reach 2.75 inches in height, while the common morel can grow much larger. Depending on the reference, tulip morels are considered either “forms” of the common morel or consist of at least two separate species — M. diminutiva or M. virginiana.
The tulip morels I found seemed to fit M. virginiana, which is "usually larger and more egg-shaped—and appears to be exclusively associated with tulip trees in the southeastern United States," writes Michael Kuo on his website MushroomExpert.com, one of my favorite mycology references. Kuo doesn’t go into the edibility of ’shrooms on his site. “Mushrooms are much more interesting, engaging, and important than figuring out what happens to humans who digest them,” he explains. I’ve always been more interested in mushroom biology and their amazing forms, so I get that.
Whatever their taxonomy, the morels I found this spring all tasted great sautéd in garlic butter, my preferred recipe for mushrooms. For the common morel, I added fresh asparagus and tarragon, pouring the resulting concoction over wild rice. With hollow stems, in each batch, the cut-up mushrooms shrunk to about a half cup, making the common morel look more like a garnish, but it still lent a lovely, earthy flavor to the asparagus and rice..
While all mushrooms in the Morchella genus are edible and delicious when cooked, they carry enough toxins to be dangerous when eaten raw; even cooked, they should be consumed in small quantities. And, like many mushroom species, morels do have lookalikes, including a whole genus of “false morels,” Gyromitra. Most are known or thought to be poisonous.
Morels, depending on the species, can appear in many places with loamy soil and deciduous trees, they are notoriously hard to find, and serious merkel hunters tend to guard their favorite spots jealously. Eric Kvarnes — an avid local merkel hunter and glassmaker with a wry sense of humor who, sadly, passed away a couple of years ago — once quipped in an email about what makes a good merkel hunter: “You have to have a little skill, and a lot of luck when you hunt murkels, and it probably helps your luck to be a person of good morel character.”
In “The Cook’s Book of Mushrooms,” Jack Czarnecki commented on why the wild morel (the “aristocrat of the forest”) is the holy grail for some mushroom hunters: “The wild morels have a great flavor complexity and are more interesting . . . because of the thrill of the hunt . . . and also because people are back in the woods. Life has begun again. So morels are as much a symbol of the beginning of Spring, a resurgence of life.”
With the coronavirus still raging here in the United States, we can use a little hope for our own resurgence of life soon.
© 2020 Pam Owen
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