The True Morels, Morchella esculenta, elata and
semilibera are not only some of the most delicious wild mushrooms in North America
but they are also some of the easiest to safely identify.
They can be found for a few weeks each spring, fruiting just after
the first spring flowers appear. That of course, could be widely variable and
difficult to distinguish in our warmest states. Here in Central NY they start about the
first week of May and can be found for about a month. The flowering of Trilliums is a good
indicator for us that Morels aren't far behind. Your best bet to figure out the morel
season in your region is to contact or join a local mushroom club and get out there and
Morels can be found in a variety of habitats. I have had my best
luck in areas with moist, sandy soils in stands of mixed woods, Apple, Ash, Cottonwood and
Elm trees. Check hillsides and disturbed areas with limestone and shale. Stream beds and
gorges can be interesting hunting grounds too. In my region Morchella semilibera, usually
appears first, followed within days by Morchella elata, and then days after that Morchella
esculenta. In the peak of the season you may find all three in the same area.
The diagram below compares the three native American morel
species, from left to right: Morchella semilibera, the half free morel, Morchella
elata, the black morel and Morchella esculenta the yellow or white morel.
All three are delicious edibles and can be dried easily but the yellow and black morels
are the most sought after. Don't be misled by the common names of these mushrooms
referring to colors, particularly Morchella esculenta the "Yellow"
morel. It appears in a wide variety of colors, from light gray to dark gray, light tan to
golden brown, pale yellow to yellow to dark brown. The shape of the cap can vary as well,
from tall slender and pointed to short squat and round. Some mycologists argue that there
are different species or sub-species in this group but if you find a mushroom in the
Spring with a honey combed, pitted cap you have a pretty sure indicator that you have a
morel, whatever the taxonomic name is.
of mushrooms that do not have true pits or cavities and are smooth, brain-like and shiny.
These spring mushrooms, often called "False Morels"
or "Early Morels" are from either the genera Verpa
or Gyromitra and though there are people who eat these mushrooms without
incident, there have been fatalities from them as well. Clearly, consumption of any
mushrooms from these genera can be a very dangerous practice.
In older texts Verpa bohemica and V. conica are listed as
edible but new evidence is contradictory. Newer texts list Verpa bohemica (the
Wrinkled Thimble Cap) as poisonous and best avoided. Symptoms include severe stomach
cramps and a loss of muscle coordination.
The other so-called "Early Morels" of the genus Gyromitra,
G. esculenta and G. infula contain the toxin Gyromitrin, AKA:
monomethylhydrazine. Related species including G. gigas, G. korfii and the genera Verpa
and Helvella may also contain traces of hydrazines. Believe it or not, monomethylhydrazine
is a key component of rocket fuel. Eating mushrooms containing hydrazines raw has caused
many documented fatalities (mostly in Europe.) Cooking and/or drying can remove the
volatile Gyromitrin poison, hence people have eaten these mushrooms for years with no ill
effects. BUT... cooking Gyromitra esculenta (pictured at lower right) can release enough
toxin into the air that simply sampling the aroma of your saut pan can lead to severe
poisoning or even death.
BEST BET WITH GYROMITRA, VERPA AND
bother with any of them!
Cooking may not remove all of the toxin and this could result in liver damage over a
period of years.
Get a good field guide and stick to the genus Morchella (the "real Morels"!)
...very safe, and very delicious.
Here's a discussion on this subject
from our Forager's Forum.
Notes: Field Guide Recommendations - David Fischer's Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America is
an excellent "field to kitchen guide," including recipes and storage techniques.
Mushrooms Demystified -
by David Arora provides identification keys, photos and descriptions of a wide variety of
edible and non-edible mushroom species and The Audubon
Society field guide to North American Mushrooms is "the old
standard" of mushroom field guides.