The Basics of Colorado Morels - Part 1
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
Welcome to the first “body section” of the Colorado morel series! In the last post I laid out the foundation for the rest of the series: building up what’s to come. In this post, and Part 2, we’ll be diving into what I consider the basics of morels. Information that will help you not only in Colorado, but pretty much anywhere you decide to hunt for them! Let's get started!
First up, taxonomy!
Wait, don’t go! I know it might sound boring, you’re just here to learn how to find morels, and the sooner the better! I understand but bear with me, this is important stuff. Knowing the scientific (Latin) name of a species and how it got that name is important for a lot of reasons - probably enough to warrant a separate blog post… adding it to my list. For now, just trust me, it’s good to have at least a little understanding of this. It will make several of my later topics more understandable, and you’ll be more comfortable reading through field guides, or other mushroom related resources. I’ll make it quick, promise.
Let’s go back to high school biology... Your teacher likely made you learn some sort of mnemonic device to help remember taxonomic rankings. Maybe something like "Dear King Philip Came Over For Good Soup". That list of words referring to Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. At its simplest, this ranking system is merely a way of grouping things by their similarities. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s a simple and easy way to understand what’s going on. We’ll save a lot of the details for the later blog mentioned above, but know that everything starts at the domain level. Mushrooms (fungi), animals, humans, everything but the “single-celled” organisms are classified in the domain Eukarya. Within Eukarya there are 4 kingdoms: Animalia, Plantae, Protista, and our main interest, Fungi!
Now, for the purpose of this post we’re going to skip right to the “Good Soup”, the genus and species. These two make up what is called the “binomial nomenclature” of a species (also known as the Latin name). These two names are used together when directly referring to a specific species, and there are a few rules to follow when doing so. The genus should always be capitalized, the species always lower case, and both should be italicized when used in text, for example Morchella septimelata. When using a Latin name or referring to the same genus several times the genus can be shortened to its first letter with a period, such as M. septimelata.
So, why is this important? Well, it is the only way to guarantee that you are referring to a specific species. Using a common name, such as “morel” is completely acceptable, however it carries no specifics, no details as to which species of morel you’re referring to. Finally, you will also often see the sp. and spp. abbreviations for species used after the genus. These are typically used when you’re unsure of the species, or are referring to multiple species within a genus, respectively. So Morchella sp. would mean “a morel species” and Morchella spp. would mean “multiple morel species”, like in the picture below!
See? That wasn’t so bad. Now to the good stuff.
In Colorado we have two ‘types’ of morels, yellow (or blonde) and black. As far as I am aware all of the yellow morels we have in Colorado are Morchella esculentoides (this could become outdated as we get better DNA sequencing of our local fungi). The black morels get a little more confusing… We have several species that are classified as “black morels” in Colorado, and those species can be split up into “burn” and “natural” (non-burned area) morels. We’ll get into more of the specifics in the Black Morel Sections, but I wanted to lay out the ground work here. I also should mention that there is still much to be learned about morels, and fungi in general! The information in my blogs is what I understand to be true based on my personal research and experiences, as the world of mycology advances some of the taxonomic information could become dated.
Here is a great resource if you’re interested in learning more about this stuff. The key is really useful! http://www.mushroomexpert.com/morchellaceae.html
So, how do we tell the two types apart? The simplest way is to check the cap coloration, more specifically the ‘ridges’. The ridges are the high points that run along around the pits in a morel’s cap. Yellow morels have yellow to tan pits with lighter colored ridges. Black morels have darker tan to brown, sometimes almost black pits with darker ridges. Now, this whole ridge thing can get a little messy when looking at really young specimens. So, the next option is to consider their habitat. In Colorado you will typically find yellows in the riparian flood plain zones and blacks in the non-riparian, coniferous areas in the mountains. That’s not always true, and we’ll get into more specific details of habitats in the next sections, but generally that’s a decent rule to follow if the “ridge rule” fails. One final note to help differentiate between the two in Colorado is to check how the cap attaches to the stem. Black morels will have a slight overhang or groove here, and yellow morels will typically not have this trait at all... though sometimes they can also have a little.
Next, let’s talk traits! All morels will have the following:
Their cap is attached to the stem at or near the bottom edge of the cap, as mentioned above black morels can have a little bit of overhang. Note - ‘half-free’ morels are an exception. Their cap attaches to the stem about half way up the length of the cap, they will however display the other traits. See the below image for a comparison.
They have a completely hollow stem that can occasionally be 'double walled' in very mature specimens.
Terrestrial, as in not growing directly from wood.
Pleasant, mushroomy, earthy smell, not fishy or spermatic.
The first two traits are best observed by cutting the mushrooms in half lengthwise, and are really the only traits you need to differentiate between a Morchella spp. and similar looking species such as the ones listed below.
The following are some genera and species that commonly get confused for morels. Some sources refer to these as "false morels" which is an unhelpful moniker in my opinion, but you will likely see it in your research so it's good to be aware of. "False morel" could really refer to any species that isn't a morel, so it's always best to use a binomial or at least genus if possible!
The one species to really know well here is Gyromitra esculenta. This species can have high levels of the toxin Gyromitrin which can cause organ damage or even death in extreme cases of poisoning. There are many other species of Gyromitra, many of which are collected for consumption. I don't know very much about this so I won't speak to it. There's a wonderful Facebook page called False Morels Demystified that has a bunch of knowledgeable people and good information if you want to research the subject further.
If you do happen to come across these it will likely be while you’re searching for black morels as they can share similar habitats. In my experience, Gyromitra fruit a little earlier than morels so if you're finding these try moving down in elevation. The Gyromitra species that might be confused for morels are easily differentiated using the traits I listed above. Gyromitra will have a chambered stem and cap when cut in half, they are never completely hollow like morels. They usually have a larger cap-to-stem ratio than morels as well, though this isn’t a trait, just an observation. The caps of Gyromitra are often less pitted and more amorphous than the typical neatly shaped morel.
These little suckers are sometimes really common and will frustrate you to no end if you get on a big flush of them. From a distance they look very similar to black morels, but they have a couple traits that make them easy to tell apart. V. bohemica have a wrinkled cap that completely overhangs the stem and attaches at the very tip. If you were to twist off the cap you would be left with an entire stem and a cap: a morel would break in half. Verpa species also contain a cotton-like substance within their stem when cut in half. I've personally never found any Verpa so I don't have any good pictures, but my friend Katie Moore sent over a couple pictures for me to use. Here's one that shows how their cap differs from a morel's cap. Thanks Katie!
I recently came to understand that Verpa species are considered to have the same 'edibility level' as Morchella species. The edibility of those being: do not consume them raw, always cook well, and some individuals may experience gastric upset from some or all of the species within these two genera. As always, I recommend doing your own research on the subject.
Stinkhorns, Phallus hadriani and P. impudicus
Some of you may be surprised to see this on the list, but every year I see multiple posts from beginners confusing stinkhorns for morels.
Stinkhorns emerge from underground egg sacks which can often resemble testicles when dug up: look at some pictures of these mushrooms online and you’ll quickly understand how they got their name. Their cap overhangs the stem which is hollow like morels, however they are more akin to a Nerf dart; spongey, almost foamy. Not like the more delicate stem of a morel. However, the most telling trait of a stinkhorn, as their name suggests, is their smell, which is quite pungent, fishy, spermatic some might say. This smell permeates from the sticky goo that coats their cap in all but the driest conditions. This goo and its smell is attractive to flies who will land on the mushrooms to check things out. In doing so they pick up the spores of the stinkhorns which are then dispersed as they move on to other areas doing their fly things.
These smelly phallic mushrooms are often found hatching in gardens, lawns, and along landscaped urban sidewalks in the summer. Definitely not the usual morel habitats or seasons in Colorado. One final note, the unhatched eggs of some stinkhorn species are considered edible, I haven't been interested, or maybe desperate, enough to try these yet but maybe one day I will. I would highly suggest you do your own research on the matter. Reference the disclaimer in the footer.
Those three are going to be the most common look-a-likes for morels in Colorado (and in most other locations as well), and they're all really simple to differentiate! Let me know if you have any questions or comments using the commenting feature at the bottom of this post.
In Part 2 of the Basics we'll get into the mindset you'll need to develop to be a successful morel hunter, and some of the basic gear you'll want to consider having before venturing out in search of them!