The Elusive Morel Mushroom
Image left: by D L Ennis, Morel Mushroom found in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
Morels grow in temperate latitudes around the world, in both conifer and hardwood forests. In North America they usually emerge first along the West coast in Early Spring and later in much of the forested East, from the Appalachians up through the Great Lakes region, with scattered harvests into Summer and Fall months.
Morels are among the most highly prized of all the wild mushrooms. The reason is plain; their taste is superb!
They evolved from a “yeast” so recently that they have not acquired a high degree of structural complexity. It is interesting that the morel is in the process of evolving from a single celled organism (a yeast) into a multicelled organism. This hasn't happened in hundreds of millions of years, and now the process is observable having begun about 50,000 years ago for the morel and continuing.
Morels grow primarily in sandy soil, never clay, unless there is a lot of organic matter near the surface. Therefore, they are usually found near rivers. They are also found scattered widely in mountain humus. They never grow in bog, because water seals out oxygen.
The habitat is usually tall trees in undisturbed environments, though morels are sometimes found in brush. In clean sand, they tend to wander some distance from trees. They sometimes come up in tall grass.
Timing is critical in finding morels. They come up about six weeks after the ground thaws. It might be eight weeks, if dry weather slows down their growth.
This means early April in the Blue Ridge Mountains, late April in Iowa and middle of May in northern Michigan. Experienced morel stalkers check an environment several times starting early and after every rain.
Morels usually come up after a rain. The day after a rain is the best time to look for them. They will still be in good shape for 3-5 days, if someone else doesn't get to them. In about a week, they start to break down, and bacteria grow on them, which will make a person sick. So don't eat morels which are old and starting to break down.
Sometimes, morels will come up in flushes each time a rain occurs. Sometimes, they will come up without a rain, but they will then be delayed a couple of weeks.
Morels are not found in the same place for more than one to three years, because they use up the type of nutrients that they require, which is a particular type of bacteria.
The best way to spread morel spores is to put the old ones on tree branches. Only the old ones have mature spores. The young ones will dry before spores are formed.
Image right: by George Barron, University of Guelph, Canada. Saddle-backed False Morel- Helvella crispa
Be careful of false morels, sometimes called brain mushrooms. They produce a toxin. It is usually not lethal in this country but should be avoided. False morels are rounder and lower to the ground, and the ridges are more rounded, like brains.
Be careful about storing morels a long time before eating, unless they are dried or precooked and frozen. Otherwise, bacteria grow on them, which can make a person sick, but not seriously ill. The bacteria are probably Psuedomonads. Store in paper bags, which absorb moisture, but avoid plastic, which causes moisture to accumulate.
Even when cooking kills bacteria, it leaves a moderately problematic endotoxin with gram negative bacteria, which grow on morels. Endotoxin is a lipid complex in the cell walls of all gram negative bacteria. It's the most common problem with food spoilage.
For recipes and more about the Morel Mushroom click here.
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