The fever has taken hold. It starts with a scouting mission and a few scattered victories of patience. Not a meal, just hope. For a week you hold off because it's still too cold outside. The ground needs to warm. Some say in the forties, others argue for 50 degrees or more. Plant indicators get your pulse going: the first trilliums are blooming and cottonwood tees are leafing out. A week later, reduced to a quivering mess, you drive over the pass to investigate east side river valleys. On south-facing benches above rivers and creeks the first honest troops emerge out of mulchy leaf piles in the sunny spots. This is just the beginning. You're on a downward spiral now.
It's not a good year to have the sickness. Seattle mushroom hunters have been champing at the bit for weeks. Like last year, the morels in my neck of the woods are late. The problem with a late fruiting is the weather can put the kibbosh on the whole affair before it's even out of the gate. The ground is moist from runoff but a few days of unseasonably hot weather this late in spring can dry out the earth and cook the young mushrooms that have already poked their snouts up.
If all goes according to plan, the morel fruiting proceeds from riparian corridors on the east slope of the Cascades to higher elevation patches in the mountains, following the snow-melt. Right now the concentration is at about the 2,000-foot level in central Washington. If the weather cooperates, we'll have several weeks of morel madness interfering with work, home, sleep—with pretty much every aspect of our daily lives.
Here's some video action from this past week:
True Morels and False Morels
Compare the pictures of these true morels above with the false early morels (Verpa bohemica) I was finding a few weeks ago. Notice how the caps of true morels are more pitted while the verpas appear more wrinkly. Though not clear in the pictures, true morels have cap margins that attach to the stem while caps of verpas are more like skirts that only attach at the peak of the cap. There's also a species of true morel called a "half-free" (Morchella semilibera) with a cap that attaches to the stem midway between the hemline and the peak.
True morels are in the genus Morchella; false morels are either Verpa or Gyromitra, depending on the common name of choice in your locality. A couple weeks ago I posted a poll (results visible in right column) asking readers to vote with their stomachs. I see now that my poll is flawed in one major way: the term "false morel" means different things to different people, largely determined by region. For the purposes of the poll, I was lumping together verpas and gyromitras under the single category of "false morel," but after doing my radio interview on KUOW last Monday I had lunch with Patrice Benson, president of the Puget Sound Mycological Society. She considered the term false morel to only apply to the genus Gyromitra, and doesn't eat any of those species. Verpas she does eat.
Overall I tallied 191 votes. The breakdown went as follows: 84 (43%) don't eat false morels (or whatever they consider to be false morels); 25 (13%) do; and 82 (42%) didn't know what the heck I was talking about in the first place. It's too bad I wasn't more clear about what, in my mind, constituted a "false morel," because anecdotally I've been gathering some interesting responses lately to the ongoing question of edibility.
- A few members of the Cascade Mycological Society whom I admire very much for their fungal knowledge strongly believe that verpas and gyromitras should never be eaten. You can read their reasoning here.
- One of my regular readers, John from Bellingham, has made a persuasive case for eating verpas and even a couple of the gyormitras based on his own review of the available literature (also available at the above link).
- The current president of Puget Sound Mycological Society eats verpas but not gyromitras.
- Verpas are sold in farmers markets in the Seattle area and elsewhere.
- The eating of verpas, from my own unscientific survey, seems to increase in parts of the Pacific Northwest where true morels are not as easily obtained.
- Outside the PNW there are pockets around the country where wild mushroom enthusiasts eat verpas, gyromitras, or both—despite what the literature says. This is a cultural phenomenon.
- After raising the issue with the ForageAhead Yahoo group, the discussion became so heated that a few members threatened to quit the group.
The bottom line is that the jury is still out on many of the species commonly known as false morels within the Verpa and Gyromitra genera. As the literature is not definitive, making a decision about whether or not to eat these mushrooms comes down to personal comfort levels. This would seem to be a murky corner of mycology that an enterprising scientist could put his/her stamp on. Memo to would-be mycologist: Please give us some answers!