By Tom Nauman
It's mushroom season again! The first report of morel mushrooms being found was March 8 near Lexington, Virginia. We had heard rumors of California morels in January, but no confirmation. January and February morels are common in California. The first report from Illinois was March 14 in Williamson County. Central Illinois' first report was March 21 near Decatur. Most reports were about black morels which tend to precede what we call "little grays" by a week or two. For a complete report of where the mushrooms are being found, visit the "sightings" section of our website http://www.ocslink.com/~morel
There is much confusion about how many different kinds of morels there are. I think most experts believe there are only three: black morels, half-free morels, and the common morel. I personally think there are more because I've seen so many that differ too greatly from one another to be the same species.
From the various field guides I use, the black morel is known scientifically by three Latin names: morchella angusticeps, morchella elata, and morchella conica. I've seen all three names used on what I would consider the same kind of mushroom. While they can be any shape, usually they are more pointed than the common morel and are the first to make their appearance in the spring. When hunting for the black morels it's best to look ten to twenty feet away and look for their shape, which is best described as similar to a Christmas tree. When they first emerge from the ground they are almost pink or light tan in color. As they age the stem will be almost white and then turn to a tan. Usually the stem is shorter than the cap. The ridges on the cap will turn black with tan pits and finally the pits themselves will turn black. The pits are usually longer than they are wide and won't have as many horizontal ridges as the common morel. Like all true morels they are completely hollow. Their taste is quite good.
The half-free morel or morchella semilibera has many other names which can't be repeated in a family column. Most refer to its phallic appearance. The length of the stem is usually much taller than the cap and the stem is very fragile. The cap and stem of the half-free morel are connected about half way up inside the stem so that the cap hangs down over the stem slightly. I've not seen any look-alikes in Central Illinois, but in Michigan, they can be confused with another mushroom called Verpa Bohemica. The verpa doesn't have true pits and ridges on the cap. It's more like folds or wrinkles. And the stem connects to the cap way up inside the cap near the top of the mushroom similar to the way the handle of an umbrella connects to the top of the umbrella. The half-free morel is edible although a lot of people don't eat it.
The common morel can be white, light gray, dark gray, tan, yellow, or brown. It's Latin names are: morchella esculenta, morchella crassipies, morchella deliciosa, morchella rotunda, morchella vulgaris, morchella umbrina, and others. What they all have in common is there sponge-like cap; they are completely hollow, both cap and stem; and that the stem connects to the cap at the base of the cap.
The most important similarity among all true morels is their flavor. There has been much excitement about portabella mushrooms lately. While the flavor of the portabella is good, most morel maniacs won't argue that comparing the flavor of the portabella to that of the morel is like comparing cardboard to steak.
Remember, whenever you want to try eating a mushroom you're not familiar with, check it in at least two field guides. If they say it's edible, try just a nibble, wait 24 hours, and if there are no ill effects then consume larger amounts. All past articles are available http://www.morelmania.com/5Mushrooms/index.html. Please feel free to contact us with questions or comments. Especially if you have ideas or suggestions for future columns: Tom and Vicky Nauman, Morel Mania, RR1 - Box 42, Magnolia, IL 61336, Phone 309-364-3319, Fax 309-364-2960, Tom@MorelMania.com.