How to Identify Morels

Click here to learn more about the How to Identify article series.

A pale, wrinkled mushroom grows amid leaf litter on the forest floor for article on how to identify morels.
M. americana

Name: True morels (Morchella spp.)

Range and typical habitat(s): Widespread throughout temperate North America, Europe, New Zealand and Australia; less commonly reported in South America, Asia, and coastal Africa. Morels are commonly found in wooded areas, and many species grow primarily on soil; these may have symbiotic (though not necessarily mycorrhizal) relationships with trees and other plants. Other morels, such as M. importuna, are saprotrophs that happily colonize dead wood, to include mulch used in landscaping. At least one, the white morel M. rufobrunnea, may be capable of both lifestyles. Morels are exceptionally difficult to cultivate, and no large-scale cultivation method has been developed as of this writing.

A dark brown, wrinkled morel mushroom with a pale yellow stipe growing out of leaf litter on a forest floor for article on how to identify morels
M. angusticeps

Both deciduous and conifer forests may be homes to morels; yellow morels tend toward deciduous, while conifer forests are more likely to feature black morels. A wide variety of tree genera may be associated with morels include but are not limited to Pseudotsuga, Pinus, Abies, Quercus, Fraxinus, Alnus, and Castanea.

Distinguishing physical characteristics (size, colors, overall shapes, detail shapes): Morels generally have cone-shaped caps whose edge is attached to the stipe (stem) all the way around.

Six morel mushrooms of varying sizes, cut open to show the hollow insides, laid on a white background for article on how to identify morels
M. punctipes, cut in half to show hollow centers, and only the upper portion of the caps attached to the stipes. Photo by Chase G. Mayers, CCA-4.0

However, the half-free morels–M. punctipes (seen right), M. populiphila, and M. semilibera–may have a small space between the bottom edge of the cap and the stipe. The cap has a honeycombed appearance, with surfaces deeply pockmarked with cavities surrounded by brittle ridges that crumble into fragments when crushed. Colors vary, and morel species are often grouped together by cap color; black morels have a dark brown to black cap, while yellow and white morels are more tan to cream.

A tan-colored morel mushroom with the very top removed showing a hole into the interior, growing out of a forest floor with dead leaves and small green plants, for article on how to identify morels
M. americana with the top removed, showing the hollow interior.

The stipe may be lightly textured, and is usually lighter in color than the cap, often white, cream, or pale yellow depending on species. Cutting a morel’s stipe open reveals that it is entirely hollow inside. A mature morel is generally around three to six inches high, though larger specimens have been found.

A vintage illustration of several morels and a false morel, showing the hollow center of one of the morels, ofr article on how to identify morels
A vintage illustration shows three morels, to include one cut in half to display the hollow center; the mushroom in the lower left is a false morel (Gyromitra esculenta).

Morels primarily fruit in spring, though M. galilaea and M. rufobrunnea fruit in fall. Some morel species, such as M. tomentosa, M. exuberans, and M. eximia, are adapted to produce large flushes the spring after a forest fire burns the land.

Other organisms it could be confused with and how to tell the difference: There are multiple groups of mushrooms that look similar enough to morels to cause confusion; given morels are a popular edible mushroom, consumption of some of these lookalikes has caused serious illness on numerous occasions.

    A small, morel-like mushroom with less dramatic honeycomb texture, light brown with a white stipe, on a forest floor with dead leaf litter, for article on how to identify morels.V. bohemica; note that the bottom edge of the cap is not attached to the stipe, and that it has more of a wrinkled appearance than honeycombed. By NeoSporen, CCA-SA-3.0.

Members of the genus Verpa look similar to half-free morels in that the bottom edge of the cap is not attached to the stipe. However, when cut in half the half-free morels have more of the upper portion of the cap attached to

Several small brown mushrooms on a forest floor, one of which is cut in half, for article on how to identify morels
V. conica, showing one cut in half. Note that the cap is only attached to the stipe at the very top, and there is still some fungal hyphae tissue in the center of the stipe. Photo by Jeff Riedenauer (Tamsenite), CCA-SA-3.0.

the stipe; Verpas only have the very tip attached. Outwardly they do look quite similar to morels overall, often having a conical cap with a honeycombed texture; some may have less distinct cavities and a more “lumpy” appearance rather than honeycombed. The cap of the Verpa is generally smaller in proportion to the stipe than on mature morels. The stipes of young Verpas are full of soft, fluffy hyphae, but they become hollow like morels as they mature.

Like morels, they are considered by some to be edible when thoroughly cooked. However, one study purports that V. bohemica is also toxic, having the same sort of toxins as the false morels I’ll discuss below. Some field guides recommend avoiding the other Verpa species as well due to potential inedibility. Both Verpas and morels fruit in spring, and may sometimes be found in the same area. As someone who would like to become an old, rather than bold, mushroom hunter, I recommend skipping the Verpas and sticking to the true morels, just in case.

A small, wrinkled false morel mushroom that looks like a dark red raisin on a white stalk for article on how to identify morels
A false morel (Gyromitra spp.); notice that instead of looking like a cone made of honeycomb, it resembles a raisin or a brain on a stalk.

False morels, in the genus Gyromitra, are a more notorious morel lookalike. Several species contain significant levels of gyromitrin, a compound that when boiled or consumed hydrolizes into monomethylhydrazine, a chemical used in making rocket fuel. Consumption may cause gastrointestinal distress, neurological symptoms, kidney and liver failure, coma, and failure of the respiratory and circulatory systems. The most severe cases result in death within a week after consuming false morels. Some species have more gyromitrin than others, and it’s likely that the compound can build up over time in people who eat false morels on a regular basis. While there are purported methods used to reduce or remove gyromitrin from false morels, as a foraging instructor I do not recommend consuming any Gyromitra false morels due to the risk of severe illness.

A false morel mushroom, tan with a cream stipe, cut in half showing several chambers instead of a single hollow stem, for article on how to identify morels
G. californica. Note that the stipe is not completely hollow inside, but has several cavities divided by fungal tissue. Photo by Alan Rockefeller, CCA-SA-4.0.

So how do you tell the difference? Where true morels look like honeycombed cones, false morels look like brains, oversized raisins, or piles of worms. If you cut a true morel open the stipe will be completely hollow, but the interior of a false morel may have multiple smaller chambers or be completely solid. It is exceptionally important to make sure you get a sure identification on whatever species you are picking, as true and false morels fruit in spring, and sometimes in the same areas.

Anything else worth mentioning? Morels are definitely one of those mushrooms you want to cook thoroughly before eating, as raw or undercooked morels can cause gastrointestinal distress. Also, if you hang around mushroom foragers long enough, you’ll hear all sorts of advice–some of it conflicting–about when and where to find morels. It’s true that they fruit in spring, starting in lower elevations where it warms up sooner, and then higher elevations as spring temperatures continue to rise. South-facing slopes that warm up faster with sunlight may also see earlier fruiting. And, of course, places that burned or were logged in the last year or two may see a bumper crop of morels the following spring. Many patches of morel mycelium only last a few years, so the place you found morels one year may not fruit the next.

Beyond that, it’s best to study up on the species of morel that grow in your area. Find out what sorts of habitats they like, if they’re associated with any particular trees, whether they are responsive to burns and other disturbances, and whether there are any toxic look-alikes that grow nearby.

Further reading:

The Great Morel

Mushroom Expert: Morchellaceae

Tom Volk’s Morel Page

Mushroom Appreciation: Morel Mushroom

Did you enjoy this post? Consider taking one of my online foraging and natural history classes, checking out my other articles, or picking up a paperback or ebook I’ve written! You can even buy me a coffee here!

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.