BLOG 42: Morels are an extremely tasty gourmet mushroom which are foraged in the spring across the Northern Hemisphere. They are the most sought out mushroom by foragers, being highly nutritious and medicinal. Full of amino acids, sterol, and magnesium. Some Morels even have a nanogram fraction of gold. According to R. Rogers in his book the Fungal Pharmacy, Morels are sold by the Chinese to treat indigestion, excessive sputum and shortness of breath. Since 1973 studies have shown Morels to be tumour inhibitors, immunostimulators, and have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions. Rogers stresses that many more promising- studies are underway. Too many to count.
Undergoing extensive re-classifications, the Morchella genus (true Morels) is large and varied across the northern hemisphere.There are 50 species of Morchella worldwide and all found in the northern hemisphere. 19 species are endemic to North America. Europeans and North Americans are the largest consumers of Morels.
When we talk about Morel mushrooms we group them into two groups: the Morchella Elata Clade or Black Morels and the Morchella Esculenta Clade or Yellow Morels (also called Blonds and Greys). In N.E. Ontario and Quebec Morels begin to appear in late April starting with the Black Morels and ending in the first week of June with the Blonds. The two Clades overlap in the 2nd-3rd week of May in our region making it possible to find both Yellows and Blacks at the same time.
Morels grow everywhere where conditions are just right. These conditions include knowing their survival connections with the Flora Kingdom. Not only are they expertly camouflaged on the ground growing out of leaf and wood chip litter, they also are hiding in secret locations like under logs.
Please know that the biggest insult you can give a mushroom hunter is asking them where their favourite Morel site is located. Why? Unable to commercially farm delicous Morels successfully due to its mycorrhizal relationship with certain trees, most Morels are handpicked in the wild and consequently prices are high. My grocer sells imported dried Morels for 12.99 at 15g. That is a whopping $364 a pound. Canadians buy most of our Morels in ‘rustic’ chic packaging from France. But did you know these Morels are imported from Mexico? Buy local if you don’t want to add excessive pollution costs to the atmosphere through unnecessary travel to and fro. But wait, you can also pick your own Morels anywhere in Ontario on crown land. Mais oui.
The latin name for the mushrooms discussed as edible in this article are the Morchella genus and do not include any false Morels or Morel look-alike mushrooms from the Verpa, Hevella and Gyromitra genus. These dudes are generally gastric toxins and some even poisonous. If you look them up in google images you will see they do not actually look like true Morels. True Morels vary greatly in shape but all have a hollow centre and honey-comb pattern. Although some Morel look-alikes are edible they all should be avoided due to confusion. Sticking to eating true Morels is the only way to go safely. They are truly a unique looking mushroom and you will get comfortable recognizing them.
Traditionally, true Morels are called many funny names like Merkel, Molly Moochers, Morilles (Fr.) and Dry Landfish. Dry landfish is a translation from the Mohawk dialect and I find it the perfect descriptive name. Why? When you cut a Morel mushroom in half and put it cut side down in the frying pan it is shaped like a fish and the fried honeycomb texture resembles fish scales. Morels are not eaten historically by some cultures due to a gastric toxin (not poison) in the raw mushroom form. Not to worry as the toxin is killed off when cooked thoroughly and some chefs will blanch the mushrooms for a couple minutes before frying. Consequently, some traditional fables warn you not to eat Morels. One such fable from Poland tells of a devil in a bad mood who murders an elderly woman he passes in the forest and then scatters her wrinkled flesh everywhere creating the shriveled honey-combed look of Morels. Yikes. Then, on the other hand, it is said that homesteaders from Virginia were dangerously snowed in for a winter and survived on reconstituted dried Morels. They began fondly calling them ‘Merkels (miracles)’. LOL. Seriously though, Morels are delicious and the tastiest mushrooms on earth. Getting sick from raw Morels is a trial and error thing...many people eat raw Morel marinades successfully…and many don’t. According to Robert Rogers, in his book The Fungal Pharmacy, 483 people in Vancouver were served a raw Morel marinade. 77 people suffered from vomiting, diarrhoea, rashes and some had numbness of limbs that lasted three days. All recovered. That’s almost 16% of the crowd. He stresses also that the fumes of Morels can be dangerous when cooking and proper ventilation is necessary. Oh yes, dear Mr. Rogers also mentioned not to drink alcohol during meals with Morel mushrooms or risk stomach upset. Not me…I’m lucky to be part of the 84% crowd of Morel eaters.
Hunting for Morels is an art for the patient hunter. Finding them is not easy. Thank goodness If you know a lot of things about them before you even go out into the woods you have a better chance of getting lucky.The very first tip you should know is that Morels pop up in the spring after three days of rain when the soil temperature turns 45°F. Instead of carrying a thermometer, hunters in the area get their clues from flowers and other plants. You see when the soil temp reaches 45°F, lilacs bud, red trilliums bloom, apple blossoms begin to open, asparagus and nettle reach 5 inches in height, pussy willows turn to catkins. All these blooming things can be present in your area but if it doesn’t rain good and long the Morels will stay below ground. Cold Springs bear few Morels but hot spring weather with lightning and thunder and forest fires bring an abundance of Morels to the area. Obviously not every condition can be met at once in your area so the first time you find morales make sure you make note of anything around you that indicates the ground was warm enough for the morales to come up and swear by it yearly. It will be your personal formula for finding your mushrooms.
Morels live in mixed hardwood forests. You can’t just go into any woods to find Morels; they have special relationships with certain trees so unless those trees are present you will not find these guys. As well the forest needs to have a closed canopy. Forests with closed canopies are areas of great symbiosis where everything inside is working together as a whole unit. Trees that have a relationship with Morels are poplars ( eastern cottonwood, tulip poplar, aspens), dead elms ( American and Slippery Elms), Pines and Ash.
Morels like alkaline soils like limestone and calcium carbonate. Limestone quarries are a good place to look for Morels. When a forest burns down, the ashes add alkalinity to the soil and offer a bumper crop. They like noise and disruption and can pop up after a good thunder. In fact the eruption of Mount Saint Helens years ago brought a seriously huge bumper crop to those in Seattle. Year old tornado zones bring Morels. They even can be found growing out of newly landscaped developed areas surrounded in poplar or pine wood chips. They have been known to grow along a fresh concrete sidewalk with limestone. They love construction sites. They also love to hang around dead pines in sandy soils. Morels also love Apple orchards because they love limestone. Unfortunately most orchards are contaminated with lead and are to be avoided, especially if you don’t know the history of the plantation. Wild Apple groves are best. Also lead areas like along highways or downwind from industrial sites are to be avoided too as Morels mycoremediate lead.
OK so now that you have all this information behind your belt you still have to go out and find them. They are so expertly camouflaged by colour that it’s a little daunting at first but the trick is to stand in a 10 ft.² of the forest where you believe Morels could be hiding and scan the area very slowly around you and look for shapes. Shapes like balls and ovals and pinecones oddly standing up. Once you find one you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see more scattered around on the ground as Morels are a terrestrial mushroom.
When you do find Morels please never forget best foraging practices and take only what you need. Leave most for the animals. Cut the Morel just above the ground above any dirt line the mushroom may have. Clean out the pits with a little brush if they’re really dirty so as not to bring home dirty mushrooms. Never forget that the actual mushroom is in the form of mycelium and lives just below the soil surface so tread lightly to not damage the creature. The Morel you are picking is actually the fruit body of the mushroom that shoots spores into the air for procreation. One doesn’t harm the mushroom's life when you cut the fruit body properly.
Morels can be dehydrated and reconstituted in a gravy or cream sauce quite successfully. Dehydrated morales retain their flavour for a decade! Fresh Morels are best fried in butter, eaten alone or on top of steak or toast but please do not spice it up because you want to taste this mushroom!
Thanking mother Earth every time you go out and forage is a good thing. She takes care of us so we need to reciprocate. Bring out your found garbage with you every time you forage in the forest. I think another gift to her is to bring someone with you into the forest and teach them how it takes care of us through foraging. Children are the best pupils and will continue your teachings with their friends. Let the mushroom teach them about Morels and the merkel of life. Happy hunting.