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  • Writer's pictureOrion Aon

Colorado Morels: Taxonomy and Look-alikes

Updated: May 2

Welcome to the first section of the Colorado Morel Series! In this post and Part 2, we’ll dive into the basics of morels. This information will help you in Colorado, and anywhere you decide to hunt for them! Let's get started!


A single black morel found growing in kinnikinnick.
A single black morel found growing in kinnikinnick.

Taxonomy Tips


I know it might sound boring. You’re just here to learn how to find morels; the sooner, the better! I understand, but this is important stuff. Knowing the scientific name of a species and how it got that name is important for many reasons. 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, I promise.


Let’s go back to high school biology. Your teacher likely made you learn some mnemonic device to help you remember taxonomic rankings. Maybe something like "Dear King Philip Came Over For Good Soup." That list of words refers 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 many details for another time, but know that everything starts at the domain level. Mushrooms (fungi), animals, humans, and everything but the “single-celled” organisms are classified in the domain Eukarya. Eukarya has four kingdoms: Animalia, Plantae, Protista, and our main interest, Fungi!


Note: Some taxonomic rankings may have changed or been updated since I wrote this.


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 should always be lowercase, 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? 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 referring to multiple species within a genus. So Morchella sp. would mean “a single morel species,” and Morchella spp. would mean “multiple morel species,” like in the picture below!


Yellow and black morels from Colorado (Morchella spp.)
Both yellow and black morels!

See? That wasn’t so bad. Now, to the good stuff.


Types of Morels


Colorado has two types of morels. Yellow (or blonde) and black. As far as I know, all of the yellow morels we have in Colorado are Morchella americana. The black morels get a little more confusing. We have several species classified as black morels in Colorado, which can be split up into burn and natural (non-burned area) morels. We’ll get into more specifics in the Black Morel Sections, but I wanted to lay the groundwork here. I also should mention that there is still much to learn about morels and fungi in general!


The information in my articles is what I understand to be true based on my research and experiences; as the world of mycology advances, some taxonomic information could become dated.


So, how do we tell the two types apart? The simplest way is to check the coloration of the ridges on the cap. The ridges are the high points that run 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 floodplain zones and blacks in the non-riparian, coniferous mountain areas. 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 often have a slight overhang or groove here, and yellow morels typically do not have this trait.



Next, let’s talk about 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 overhang.

    • 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 hollow stem that can occasionally be double-walled in mature specimens.

  • Terrestrial, as in not growing directly from wood.

  • A 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.




 

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Morel Look-alikes


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!


Gyromitra spp.

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. There's a wonderful Facebook page called False Morels Demystified, which has many knowledgeable people and good information if you want to research the subject further.


Since writing this article, I have eaten the snowbank gyromitra, Gyromitra montana. They were delicious and fun to forage!


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 abovementioned traits. 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.



Wrinkled thimble-cap, Verpa bohemica.

These little suckers are sometimes really common and will frustrate you to no end if you get on a big flush of them. They look very similar from a distance to black morels, but they have a couple of traits that make them easy to tell apart. V. bohemica has a wrinkled cap that completely overhangs the stem and attaches to 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. When cut in half, Verpa species also contain a cotton-like substance within their stem. I haven't found any Verpa yet, so I don't have any good pictures, but my friend Katie Moore sent over some pictures for me to use. Here's one that shows how their cap differs from morels. Thanks, Katie!


The cap of Verpa bohemica is attached at the very tip of the stem.
The cap of Verpa bohemica is attached at the very tip of the stem.

Verpa species are considered to have the same edibility level as Morchella species. Do not consume them raw; always cook well. Some individuals may experience gastric upset from some or all 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, often resembling 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 hollow stem like morels. However, they are more akin to a foam Nerf dart, spongey and 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, and spermatic, some might say. This smell permeates from the sticky goo called gleba that coats their cap in all but the driest conditions. This goo and its smell attract flies who will land on the mushrooms to check things out. 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.


Since writing this, I have tried eating cooked stinkhorn eggs. They taste like metallic, foamy radishes.


Those three will 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! Next, we'll cover some midsets and equipment you'll need when looking for morels!



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Orion Aon
Orion Aon
Apr 22, 2019

Ez, glad to hear it! The info definitely applies to northern NM. That's where I'm originally from!

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ez
Apr 22, 2019

Just ordered a book through one of your affiliate links. Thanks very much for the information and recommendation. I'm in northern NM, and hope some of your info will apply.

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