The Morel of the Story

The arrival of spring doesn’t just herald the appearance of an abundance of edible plants and flowers; it also presents an opportunity to find some delicious, gourmet fungi. Although autumn provides the greatest variety of edible mushrooms and fungi, spring features a small number of excellent species that cannot be found at any other time, namely St George’s Mushroom (Calocybe gambosa) and the morels, the black morel (Morchella elata) and the common morel (Morchella esculenta).

Despite several years of springtime searches for these species, I have come away empty handed; so imagine my excitement this year when I found what appeared to be a giant specimen of common morel poking up through some woodchippings.

Morels mainly appear from April to May, though they may be found as early as March in the South of the UK, and can persist until early June. They are a completely separate division of fungus, the Ascomycetes, more closely related to powdery and jelly-like fungi that coat tree branches than the standard mushroom we all recognise. This particular division of fungi shoots out spores allowing them to catch the wind – so if you find one morel, there may well be more along the prevailing wind pathway. Morels are very distinct, possessing honeycomb-like pits in their caps, which taper to a creamy-white stem, which may be smooth or somewhat furrowed. A key feature is that morel caps, when cut in half are distinctly hollow inside, as is the stem.

Morchella-esculenta

The main difference between the black morel (shown below) and common morel (shown above) is that the former is darker, with a more pointed, conical cap, with vertical ridges running down the cap between the pits. The common morel’s cap is usually lighter coloured, appearing pale yellow to brownish, irregularly rounded and measuring 5- 12cm across, though sometimes reaching up to 25cm.

black-morel

Both species are typically found on disturbed ground, in chalky soil amongst copses, scrubby woodland and on old forest fire patches. Unfortunately they are uncommon in such wild conditions, and are much more likely to occur on certain man-made habitats that particularly suit their needs: mulches and woodchippings.

This is why, during a sunny May walk through a local arboretum I was sure to scan the beds of woodchippings surrounding the various trees. This diligence was rewarded by the sight of a tiny mound of honeycombed cap pushing through some chippings. After some careful excavation, I exposed what appeared to be a single, large common morel.

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Sadly the story doesn’t end happily. After bringing the morel home, I cut it in half to check for the key feature of the hollow cap and stem. As you can see from the photo, what I found were irregularly convoluted, squashed looking insides.

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This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if there didn’t exist a poisonous morel lookalike – the false morel (Gyromitra esculenta). This species has more of a brain-like cap made up of convoluted folds rather than pits, appearing yellow-brown to reddish brown. The stem is more solid, though becomes hollow in chambers with age. Below you can see the difference between a true morel (left) and false morel (right).

morel and false morel

The false morel is deadly poisonous raw and while some people prepare it for eating by repeatedly boiling and discarding the water it is cooked in, it is likely that cumulative poisoning may still occur in some individuals. Interestingly, one of the toxic chemicals that causes false morel poisoning is monomethyl-hydrazine, which is used as rocket fuel. This is produced when chemicals in the false morel react with stomach acid, and can also form during boiling of the fungus creating hazardous, flammable vapour. True morels are also poisonous raw, but safe when cooked.

So, returning to my specimen, I wasn’t particularly pleased to find that it had an unexpectedly irregular interior. While the cap was more similar to the common morel than the false morel, with pits rather than folds, the lack of a clearly hollow cap gave me pause. While it would be tempting to go with the overall look of my find and cook up a long sought-after, uncommon delicacy, where fungi are concerned, even the smallest doubt concerning identification should be taken seriously. As John Wright says, “if in doubt, leave it out”. Given the pictures, I am sure many foragers will be lamenting my decision to throw away such an impressive find; I’m 99 per cent sure it’s not a false morel, but as it is uncharacteristic of the common morel description I’m unwilling to take any chances. I really advise this kind of caution when mushroom foraging – yes, you may end up missing out on some delicious meals, but you will also greatly reduce your chances of making a dangerous mistake.

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