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Springtime, especially in Appalachia, is morel season. Morel mushrooms (Morchella spp.) are arguably the most highly prized of the springtime fungi. Morels are easily distinguished from most other mushrooms by their sponge-like caps and hollow bodies. These choice edibles are known by various local names such as Molly Moochers, sponge mushrooms, dry land fish honeycomb, and pine cone mushroom. Although there are at least 12 species in North America, we will concentrate on the two most familiar groups found in the northeastern United States.

Black Morels

Morchella elata and M. angusticeps are usually the first to appear (late April- May in WV). The hollow, dark brown to blackish cap resembles a conical sponge with irregular pits and ridges. It is usually  ¾”-2 3/8” wide 1”-3 1/2”tall. The white or off-white stalk is 2”- 4” tall. Look for black morels on the ground (as opposed to wood) near cherry, tulip or other poplars and other mixed woodlands, especially areas that have previously been burned. A word of caution: in order to avoid gastrointestinal upset, black morels should not be consumed with large quantities of alcohol.

Yellow Morels

Morchella esculenta, a choice edible, can be found in late April through June. The hollow, sponge-like, bell-shaped cap is about ¾” – 2 3/4” wide and up to 7” tall and can be gray, brown or yellow in color. The hollow stalk is anywhere from 1”- 4 1/2” tall and is thicker at the base. Look for yellow morels near dead elms, American ash, tulip poplars and in old apple orchards, as well as previously burned areas.

Preparation and Cooking
Fresh-picked morels are best carried in a basket or paper bags, never plastic. Morels require a little more effort in cleaning than the average mushroom. Their sponge like surface is a prime hiding place for insects you probably don’t intend to eat. After thoroughly rinsing them to remove bits of soil, soak them for 30 minutes or so in salt water to bring out any additional critters that rinsing didn’t remove. Morels lend themselves well to just about any mushroom recipe, thousands of which can be found through Google or your favorite bookstore. One of my favorite recipe books is “Hope’s Mushroom Book” by Hope Miller.  Because they contain a small amount of toxins that are eliminated by cooking, always be sure to cook morels thoroughly in a well-ventilated area.  They should NEVER be eaten raw.
Nutritional Content: 20% protein, 4.8% fat, 8.7% fiber,  64.4% carbohydrates.

A Word about False Morels and Mushroom Poisoning
When consuming any wild mushroom, always save a few intact, raw mushrooms for identification in case you become ill.
Although they differ in appearance, to the untrained eye or an inexperienced collector, the poisonous false morels (Gyromitra) may be confused with their, oh, so edible relatives. Some Gyromitra species can cause poisoning ranging from gastrointestinal upset to serious liver impairment and death. Eating any species of Gyromitra is not recommended.


Sometimes called the brain mushroom, because of its wavy, folded, irregularly lobed appearance. The cap is 1 3/8” to 4” wide and 1 ½”-4” tall, tan to dark reddish brown. The stalk may be hollow or filled with cottony fibers;  3/4”-2 3/4” long and about 3/4”-1 1/8” thick, usually ribbed. Brittle flesh. Most often found under conifer trees.

The preceding information is not intended to replace knowledgeable expertise in identification and good advice in mushroom hunting. If you are new to mushroom hunting, seek out the help of an experienced mycologist or a local mushroom club Don’t be shy about asking for help in identifying your collections, most seasoned mushroom hunters happy to help (although don’t expect them to share their favorite morel sites with you). Always remember: never, ever consume any mushroom unless you are absolutely certain of its identification. If in doubt, throw it out.

Numbered images are compliments of Forestry Images an archive of high quality images for use in educational applications.

Originally posted to Foraging on Mon Apr 25, 2011 at 03:07 PM PDT.

Also republished by Living Simply.

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