The Elusive Morel

By Jason Beale, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Manager

In many regions of the United States, mid-Spring sends thousands of people into our fields and forests to seek the elusive morel.  Morels are sac fungi (Ascomycota) as opposed to the classic gilled mushrooms (Basidiomycota) and are considered one of the finest wild gourmet foods out there.

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Morels have a counterculture all their own with stories of colorful hunters who jealousy mislead would-be pickers to protect a patch.  They tell tall tales of the big find, theories on how and where to find them, and leave legions of salivating hikers in their wake.  Some locations that have proved successful in my morel hunting are under dying elms, around the bases of ash trees, recent burn areas, and abandond apple orchards.  They generally appear after a warming period, especially if it has been wet.  I haven’t heard about too many people finding morels in southern Delaware; they seem to be rather rare here or perhaps a well-kept secret.  However, I know from experience that northern Delaware, Pennsylvania, and the Great Lake States all have well established picking traditions. 

Morel habitat?  Expect the unexpected and then jealously guard your patch!
Morel habitat? Expect the unexpected and then jealously guard your patch!

Therefore, we had a nice surprise today when Elliott Workman, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center’s Land and Facilities Coordinator, discovered a patch behind our dumpster under white pines.  “One man’s trash is another man’s…mushroom?”  They were yellow morels, Morchella esculenta.  

Morels are hollow, but rarely unoccupied.

 As with all morels, they are readily identified by the brain coral-like head.  The pock marks contain spore sacs that are released into the air at maturity.  A single fruiting morel may produce hundreds of millions of spores in its brief life.  The spores are transported by the wind, ideally to land in suitable habitat.  Morels are saphrophytic with germinating spores producing hyphae (root-like filaments) that feed on decaying wood.  Morels are also completely hollow in the stalk and head.  Experienced morellers know to slice the morels in two in order to evict any slugs, beetles, pillbugs, or other critters that may be hiding inside sharing your meal.  The simplest recipe is to sautee morel halves in butter.  Ah!  The taste of spring!

A word of caution: Please use common sense when experimenting with wild foods of any kinds.  Even “edible” species can produce allergic reactions in certain individuals.   Talk to local experts, study your field guides, and enjoy.

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