It’s a miracle!
Updated: Jan 23
Scoring my first wild morel
Over my many years of rambling in nature, I've participated in a few morel hunts. They were mostly instigated by well-meaning friends who were big fans of these mushrooms. The hunts were not only fruitless but a bit dangerous, including narrowly avoiding an encounter with a moose and her twin calves in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. It wasn't until April 19 of this year that I finally found my first morel in the wild, and I was on my own and found it by accident.
Here in the Blue Ridge, "true morels"—fungi in the Morchella genus—are often called "merkels" (spelling varies) because finding one is a merkel (miracle). The first morel I found that April day, a bit less than 3 inches tall, had ceremoniously popped up overnight on a trail I have traveled pretty much every day (sometimes more than once) for 10 years.This time of year, when spring is in full swing, I’m constantly scouring the forest floor for blooming wildflowers and fungi as well as for emerging wildlife. If I hadn't been looking down on that day, I might have crushed that little pitted beauty.
After some looking around, I found another three morels, all within a few feet of an old Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) and about the same size as the first one or smaller. Knowing that some morels favor these trees is not particularly helpful where I live. As on many forested properties in the Blue Ridge, the Tuliptrees had taken over the forest crown, replacing oaks that once ruled but were logged out and not replaced. As I pulled the little mushrooms out of the ground, I shook them in hopes that their spores would be left behind to spawn further generations.
A morel is a morel is a morel, but which one?
Mushroom identification can be tricky, and consuming a mushroom before confirming that it is edible can lead to illness, even death, from toxins some fungi carry. I absolutely love the amazing look and biology of mushrooms, but I never eat any species from the wild that I'm not already familiar with or have not had identified by an expert I trust.
I hadn't eaten a morel in years, and knew that the genus, Morchella, includes more than one species — all tasty and safe when cooked and eaten in moderation. I assumed this was among the most common ones, which have a yellowish tinge and are often called as a group "Yellow Morels." The largest, the Common Morel, is also known as Yellow Morel, Molly Moocher, Sponge Mushroom, Haystack, Blond Morel, and Dryland Fish.
To double-check the species, I turned to William C. Roody's Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians, my favorite local-mushroom guide. Roody, a biologist with the state’s Department of Natural Resources, packs the thick guide not only with tons of good information, but also lots of photos he's taken in the field.
The mushrooms did fit the general appearance of the Common Morel, aka Yellow Morel, for which Roody used the Latin name Morchella esculenta (the species name meaning "edible"), but were all on the small side. It wasn't until May 5, when I found another morel — this one a whopping 4 inches, down at the bottom of the mountain—that I went back to check Roody's description more closely and look at the photos again. In his "Comments" section, he notes that the name "Yellow Morel" is often applied to some smaller "forms" (up to 2 3/4 inches) of M. esculenta. These smaller morels are known as "tulip morels" because of their association with Tuliptrees, in the magnolia family, including our local Liriodendron tulipifera.
A bit confused, especially since the larger morel was also growing near a Tuliptree, I started to take a deeper dive in Morchella taxonomy, visiting some of my favorite 'shroom websites. Instead of clarity, I ended up down a mycological rabbit hole. I'll skip my meanderings down there and cut to the chase: Roody wrote his guide in 2003, but the taxonomy of species has been rapidly evolving since then, with DNA testing leading to new understandings about the relationships among fungi. What was formerly M. esculenta, a European species, has since been found to be, through this testing, to be a similar but distinctly North American species, now dubbed M. americana. It's retained its traditional common names here.
Battles continue about whether two tulip morels with slightly different features are a "form" of M. americana or are two separate species—Morchella diminutiva and Morchella virginiana—and perhaps others. Between the two species most mentioned, my little morels seemed to match up better M. virginiana, is "usually larger and more egg-shaped--and appears to be exclusively associated with tulip trees in the southeastern United States," according to Michael Kuo, whose MushroomExpert.com website is one of my favorite online mycology references.
Along with being smaller than M. americana, the pits of tulip morels are also proportionately longer and more vertical, which matches up with the photos of the morels I found (see the photos of both species I found, below, to see the differences).
While I'm still not 100 percent sure which morels I found this spring, what I do know is that all of them were quite tasty (see how I cooked at the end of the post). Roody concurs that morels are “edible and delicious when cooked" and eaten in moderation. But, as is true of many mushroom species, they are poisonous when raw because of toxins they carry. Mushroom hunters do use the smell of a mushroom to help identify the species, along with the mushroom's location, growing habit, shape and color, and shape and color of its spores.
Other species of mushrooms bear some similarity to morels, but anyone familiar with true morels is unlikely to confuse them with "false morels" (in the Gyromitra genus), most of which are considered poisonous. One of the most common, the False Morel, has a Latin name that could trip up anyone trying to figure out if it's edible: esculenta, which, as I noted above, means "edible." I'm not sure how it got that name, but it is far from edible and can be deadly. Rather than being a sculptured thing of beauty as true morels are, G. esculenta looks to me more like a pile of poop—dark brown, with fatter wrinkles (similar to other gyromitras). However, some of the other species in this genus do bear enough resemblance to morchellas that it's good to keep them in mind when morel hunting. Like others in its genus, it is associated with sandy soils and conifers, while morels seem to prefer in loamy soils near deciduous trees.
I suggest that anyone wanting to venture further down the rabbit hole of morel taxonomy and other aspects of their biology go to MushroomExpert.com. However, keep in mind that, as Kuo stresses, the site "contains no information about the edibility or toxicity of mushrooms." He goes on to say, "I think mushrooms are much more interesting, engaging, and important than figuring out what happens to humans who digest them." I'm with him, especially the more I learn about how important fungi are to Earth's ecology.
While some morels are associated with Tuliptrees, others have been associated with Mayapple, which also appear in the forest where I live every spring — by the thousands, so even a less-useful clue than their association with Tuliptrees. Orchards, fields, and pastures also often host morels of one species or another. And even summer fires can trigger a bloom of morels in a variety of habitats.
I wondered, after my 10 years of walking the trails where I found the morels without seeing any, why they had appeared at two separate locations among my regular rambles this spring. Perhaps it had to do with the torrential rains here in 2018 — 100 inches recorded by someone up the hollow. The torrents moved a lot of soil down the mountain that year. The next year some ephemeral spring wildflowers, including Bloodroot, had migrated down to the bottom of the mountain. At the time, I thought that perhaps the rains were responsible. Could spores of morels have washed down, too?
Last thoughts on merkels . . . for now
Despite the range of places this genus can inhabit, morels are notoriously hard to find, and successful merkel hunters tend to jealously guard their treasure spots. In roaming the places where I've lived on the border of Shenandoah National Park, a favorite 'shroom-hunting area historically, I've sometimes caught a glimpse of someone quietly slipping away into the forest during merkel season.
So what does it take to be a good merkel hunter? Eric Kvarnes, an avid local merkel hunter and glassmaker with a wry sense of humor who, sadly, passed away a couple of years ago, once once quipped that “you have to have a little skill, and a lot of luck when you hunt murkels, and it probably helps your luck to be a person of good morel character.”
In “The Cook’s Book of Mushrooms,” Jack Czarnecki commented on why the wild morel (the "aristocrat of the forest") is the holy grail from many mushroom hunters: “The wild morels have a great flavor complexity and are more interesting . . . because of the thrill of the hunt . . . and also because people are back in the woods. Life has begun again. So morels are as much a symbol of the beginning of Spring, a resurgence of life.”
With the coronavirus still raging here in the United States, we can use a little hope for our own resurgence of life soon.
© 2020 Pam Owen
Cookin' up them merkels
I hadn't eaten mushrooms of any kind for quite a while, and the only thing I remember about some store-bought morels I'd eaten years ago was that they had a delicate taste. So, when it came to cooking the small morels, I decided to go to my fallback position for mushrooms: sautéing them in butter with freshly chopped garlic.
With these 'shroom celebrities, I should have waited for a nice spring evening, pairing them with a crisp, citrusy sauvignon blanc, and maybe some fresh trout. But after birding for more than two hours that morning, I was hungry, and those freshly picked mushrooms were calling me.
With Covid-19 in full swing, I hadn't shopped for a while and only had some elderly garlic and salted butter, but I plowed ahead. With their small caps and hollow stems, the little morels shrunk down to about a half cup in the pan.
I pretty much drowned them in butter, but that worked out well, enabling me to spread the little morels' earthy flavor over the brown rice I piled them onto. I added a dash of pepper, then consumed the morels in about 10 seconds. I could have eaten them in a couple of bites, but I wanted to be mindful about consuming this rare treat. It was truly tasty, but so is anything cooked in garlic butter.
The day before I found the larger morel, I had picked up a bit of fresh, local asparagus from a small grocery in the village nearby, along with fresh garlic. The spears were long and fat, so I cut them up and steamed them to a nice al dente, pouring butter with dried tarragon—the only thing that improves garlic butter, in my opinion—over most of them.
The next day, with the large morel in hand, I put the rest of the steamed asparagus in a pan with the morel, which I'd cut up, adding tarragon-garlic butter left over from the night before and sautéing the combination gently. I had a package of wild rice that had been hanging around, so I cooked that, which offered a different texture and taste for the substrate.
Having emailed some friends and relatives about my merkel finds, I went a step further with the asparagus-and-morel feast and it in an Italian pottery bowl with festive colors, then took it outside to photograph it. The one ‘shroom, in spite of its impressive size before cooking, had of course shrunk to almost being lost among the asparagus, with just a few caramel-colored bits showing. But the asparagus was so pretty and went so well with the pottery that it added some visual panache to the meal.