With spring gobbler season and shed hunting in full swing, you’re probably spending a lot of time in the woods looking at the ground for antlers and turkey sign. Something else you ought to be on the lookout for is a weird little pitted thing that looks like a small, lumpy, brown brain. This time of year, that organism is most likely a common morel mushroom, a popular item of spring foragers. Here’s how to properly identify this delectable fungus.
ID a Morel
The common morel (Morchella esculenta) is a prized wild mushroom that grows in forests and shady areas, primarily in April and May. These mushrooms are usually 2 to 4 inches tall. The tan, gray, or brownish colored head with irregular pitting is well camouflaged against leaf litter. If you cut the mushroom completely in half, it should be entirely hollow inside. Look carefully for the cone-shaped head to be fully fused to the stalk at the lower end.
If the head is only attached at the top, and hangs like a skirt, you are probably looking at a false morel, which can be very poisonous. False morels (the genera Verpa and Gyromitra) usually grow in the summer and fall, which are great times to avoid anything resembling a morel. Another way to properly ID an edible morel is to make a spore print, which, for a common morel is yellowish. Here’s how do that.
Make a Spore Print
1. Handle your foraged mushrooms carefully, and assume that any unidentified mushroom is deadly. Get the whole thing if possible, but the cap is the part you need for spore prints.
2. Wrap each individual mushroom in wax paper or a piece of aluminum foil for transport. Plastic bags will make them sweat, and putting multiple mushrooms in a bag can create confusion.
3. Place the mushroom cap gills-down on a piece of white paper and set a cup or bowl over it. Allow it to sit several hours or, better yet, overnight.
4. Remove the cover and lift the mushroom cap. Observe the color of the spores that were deposited, and use that color for identification. Some mushrooms deposit white spores, which are hard to see on the white paper. Set a strong flashlight beside the paper, shining across the surface, to assist in your identification of pure white spores. Check this color against several guides, and double-check the mushroom’s structures against similar mushrooms to ensure that you have the right mushroom ID.
How is the morel hunting in your area so far this spring? Have you ever had a bad run-in with a misidentified mushroom? Tell us about it in the comments.
CC image of false morel from Flickr