Finding morel mushrooms for the first time is a dream come true for most beginning foragers. Even decades later, seasoned foragers still enjoy the thrill of identifying morels every spring.
Morel mushrooms are one of the best-tasting things you can find during the spring foraging season. While most of the harvest this time of year is bitter greens, much needed by your system after a long winter, morels are one last bite of comfort food.
They taste best sauteed in butter and finished with a splash of cream, and are a great way to get in one last indulgence before the deluge of spring salads.
Though they have a number of toxic look-alikes, identifying morel mushrooms is simple enough with good attention to detail. A quick tutorial and my 4-year-old foraging assistant is off scouring the ground for treasure…
When Is Morel Mushroom Season?
The first trick to finding morel mushrooms is to look at the right time. That can be tricky, as morel season varies by region, and can change a bit from year to year depending on the weather.
Morels fruit in response to soil temperature.
Most varieties begin fruiting when the soil temperature (4 inches below ground) reaches 55 degrees F (12-13 C) and stop fruiting when soil temps warm to around 62 degrees F (16-17 C).
I took the soil temperature next to this morel mushroom in early June and it read 59 F. Toward the end of the season, but this specimen is already past prime and likely surfaced during cooler temps a few days ago.
These particular soil temperatures generally correspond to when daytime temperatures are in the 60’s and the nightly lows are in the 40’s.
In Vermont, a good time to find them is in late May. In more Southern latitudes, they can be found as early as March, and in the far north, they’ve been recorded as late as July.
Black morels come up first, around the time of the first trout lilies, ramps, and trillium.
Three weeks later, you’ll begin seeing yellow morels. They arrive alongside the first dandelions and wild strawberry flowers. In warmer areas, that can be late March into April, but here in Vermont, yellow morels don’t pop until late May and early June.
These Yellow Morels popped up in late May in Central Vermont, under an old apple tree.
Where to Find Morel Mushrooms
Once you know when to look, the next problem is where…
Where can you find Morel Mushrooms? Everywhere and nowhere! They’re liable to grow just about anywhere in the US, but finding where a spore has landed and found good conditions for growth is a bit of a scavenger hunt. Luckily, morels are not as picky as you might think about habitat.
Black Morels tend to prefer hardwood forests, especially within 1-2 years of a burn. They don’t need fire to pop up, but something about a burn makes them more likely to appear.
They also prefer (but don’t need) alkaline soils, which may have something to do with their preference for recent burn sites. Hardwood ash increases the alkalinity of soils, thus their affinity for burn sites.
Though they don’t grow on trees, they are often found near ash, cottonwood, sycamore, as well as in disturbed areas near roadsides, campgrounds, logged areas or recently flooded low-lying areas.
Yellow Morels grow just about everywhere but are often found near ash, poplar, elm and apple trees. Old apple orchards may have been treated with calcium carbonate (powdered limestone) to increase the pH and make the soils more alkaline.
What’s good for apple trees, also happens to be good for morels, and mimics conditions after a burn.
Be careful harvesting in old apple orchards though. Historically, it was not uncommon to treat them with lead and arsenic as a pesticide. There is the potential for those chemicals to accumulate in the mushroom fruitbodies, so keep that in mind.
There is a great discussion of that issue here.
Regardless of where you’re looking, when you spot one, there are likely others close by. Look near the trees drip line, where conditions are moist but also sunny to warm the soil. They also seem to like woods edges, where trees give way to open fields.
Identifying Morel Mushrooms
While most people assume “morels” are just one type of mushroom, they’re actually not a single species. In fact, they’re a large genus of mushrooms with similar characteristics, including over 100 distinct species.
Much of the species differentiation is merely academic, and identifying the exact morel species is less important than you might think (and may be impossible lacking genetic testing equipment).
Regardless of the morel species, they’re all tasty, and they share characteristics that allow them to be identified as a genus.
While new species are being identified all the time (30 new species were identified as new to science in 2014 alone), generally when talking about morels there are a few key species to note.
Characteristics of Morel Mushrooms
Morel mushrooms all share a number of characteristics, which will allow you to separate them from toxic look-alikes.
If you think you’ve found a morel, the first thing to do is take a look at how the cap attaches to the stem. Does the stem slip under the cap like the handle of an umbrella? No good!
True Morels have a seamless cap attachment and the honeycombed cap attaches directly to the stalk.
Once you’ve noted the cap attachment and verified that the cap moves directly into the stalk, the next step is to examine the inside.
Cut the mushroom in half from top to bottom. Morels are always hollow from the bottom of the stem to the tip of the cap, while many of the look-alikes are not.
Those two things, the cap attachment and the fact that they’re hollow, should quickly eliminate all the potential toxic look-alikes.
That said, there are a number of other characteristics that can help to positively identify morel mushrooms…
The main characteristics of morel mushrooms are:
- Honey-comb like ridges and pits on the cap
- Stem attachment at the base of the cap, and is completely attached along the bottom ridge. (Not under the cap like a skirt or umbrella)
- Morels are always hollow from the bottom of the stem to the tip of the cap
- Usually longer than they are wide (as compared to false morels which are often but not always wider than long)
- Size varies widely, but caps are 1-4 inches in length, and 1-2.5 inches wide, and stalks are usually 0.5 to 4 inches long and 0.5 to 1.5 inches in diameter.
- Colors vary but include yellow, tan, grey, grey-black, olive-ish. They rarely venture into the red spectrum, which is more common for false morels.
Morels mushrooms have a number of poisonous look-alikes. To my eye, they’re not even close.
Once you’ve seen a true morel, I can’t imagine you’d confuse it with a toxic Gyromitra. Nonetheless, every spring on mushroom identification forums I see pictures of Gyromitra posted, with the forager hoping and wishing they’d found a morel.
Look closely, and remember the key characteristics.
They should be hollow, with a stem attachment at the base of the cap. Remembering those two things will help keep you out of trouble.
Nonetheless, there are 4 mushrooms that are considered morel look-alikes, and 3 of them are toxic. Verpa Bohemica, Gyromitra, and Verpa conica are all potentially toxic, though easily distinguished from true morels.
Half-free morels are not toxic, but they’re not particularly tasty. They’re also easy to identify.
Wrinkled Thimble Cap (Verpa Bohemica)
Verpa bohemica looks to my eye the most like a true morel from the outside. It does have something that vaguely looks like a honey-combed cap, but when you look closely, it looks less like a honey-comb with sharp ridges and more like a wrinkled sheet or the lobes of a brain.
The distinction becomes completely clear when the mushroom is cut in half lengthwise.
Verpa bohemica has a cap to stem attachment well under the cap like a skirt and does not have a hollow stem. The stem is filled with a cotton-like fluff that you won’t find in a true morel.
Verpa bohemica may or may not be toxic. Its toxicity is still up for debate by science, and only some people may be susceptible to the low levels of toxin. It is eaten by many people, but it’s suggested that consumers should limit themselves to small amounts at any given sitting.
The potential toxin is Gyromitrin, which may or may not be produced by the mushroom in small amounts. When ingested in small quantities, this toxin can produce nausea, stomach cramps, and diarrhea, and in large quantities can produce convulsions, jaundice, coma or death.
Regardless of whether or not it’s toxic, its flavor, unlike that of a morel mushroom is described as “unremarkable.”
Verpa bohemica is easily distinguished from the true morel by its ridges, stem attachment and lack of a hollow stem.
Gyromitra is a genus of 18 mushrooms that are not closely related to morels, and though they do have ridged caps, there are many obvious differences. The root words of Gyromitra translate to “Convoluted Turban” which is a reasonably accurate description of how it looks.
The mushroom is often much wider than it is tall, and the ridges look like folds of cloth rather than a honeycomb.
Even if you somehow manage to spot a Gyromitra and optimistically hope it’s a morel, the true identity will become clear once you cut it in half lengthwise.
It is also not hollow, which is the dead giveaway. Their cap is generally much redder than a morel as well.
Though many species of Gyromitra mushrooms are highly toxic due to the presence of Gyromitrin, they’re often eaten when fully cooked in Scandinavian Countries, or fully dried in Spain.
It appears though, that the toxin is not fully removed in these cases, and those that are eating them are just less susceptible to the toxin. We spotted some of them while a Sweedish friend was visiting, and he remembered eating them growing up in Sweeden in the ’70s.
Still, though some cultures do consider them edible, don’t risk it!
A study in the 1970’s estimated that nearly 1/4 of all mushroom-related toxicity cases were due to Gyromitra species, so it’s best left alone.
It’s easy to tell the difference between this genus and morels, so eaten by traditional cultures or not, you can make your own choice to stay clear of them.
Though I wouldn’t recommend eating them, here’s a discussion on how to cook gyromitra mushrooms.
Thimble Morel or Bell Morel (Verpa conica)
Very small barely visible ridges and a small cap are your first clues that Verpa conica is not a true morel. The main difference is the skirt or umbrella-like cap attachment in Verpa conica, which makes it easy to distinguish from a true morel.
Though the stem is hollow, the cap does not flow seamlessly into the stem, and the stem slips under the cap like legs in a skirt.
It is questionably edible, with some reports of gastrointestinal discomfort.
Half-free morel (Morchella semilibera, M. punctipes, M. populiphila )
Half-free Morels are very closely related to black morels and are considered edible.
They are in fact, part of the “morel” genus. However, they’re not particularly tasty and very fragile to harvest. If you find one, you do technically have a “morel” but I wouldn’t show it off to your fungus-loving friends. They’re considered an inferior species, and not one to write home about.
The main distinguishing feature is that it is “half-free” or that the cap does not seamlessly flow into the stem, but tucks under like legs under a skirt. It also tends to have a very long stem and small-cap.
How to Collect Morel Mushrooms
When out collecting mushrooms, always use a mesh bag.
Because along with the mushrooms, you are carrying away the spores. Millions of them.
Mushroom spores are free, and instead of taking them with you, they should sprinkle around the woods as you harvest. Think of it as mushroom community service.
How to Preserve Morel Mushrooms
Morels are best preserved dried. They dehydrate easily in a dehydrator, or on a mesh screen with a fan running near them. They are quite wet and spongy, so be careful to keep adequate ventilation to prevent mold.
It takes nearly a pound of fresh morels to make 1 ounce of dried, which is why they can retail for $16-20 per ounce.
How to Cook Morel Mushrooms
Morels are cooked just like you would most mushrooms…sauteed with a lot of butter and oil to rich deliciousness. They’re described as “the king of mushrooms” for their earthy, nutty and subtly beefy flavor.
I find them best when used to accentuate other early spring tastes like asparagus, wild leeks, and fresh spring herbs. Sauteed in butter and finished with a splash of cream, true morels are to die for!
I tend to add more than a “splash” of cream, and my favorite way to prepare them is in a simple morel cream sauce over pasta.
Morel Mushroom Recipes
Looking for specific recipes to prepare your harvest? Here are a few options for you:
Wild Foraging Mushrooms
Looking for other wild mushroom foraging resources? Here are a few other wild mushrooms to try:
- Reishi mushrooms
- Chaga Mushrooms
- Shaggy Mane Mushrooms
- Chanterelle Mushrooms
- Puffball Mushrooms
- Witches Butter Mushrooms