Monday, May 18, 2009

Morel Madness

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.

To wit:

  • 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!


Allison Lemons said...

Your photos are so beautiful! I must say, I now know more than I ever thought I would about morels, thanks to your blog. Great post

Heather said...

I know the difference! Hey, next time, let's have a little narration on the video, Lang.

Anonymous said...

The false morels kind of look like the morel's creepy twin brother. Great post.

Gold star for Heather! :D

John in Bellingham said...

You take that back! Verpas and G.gigas are quite beautiful for those who can appreciate them... lol

Lang, great summation of the false morel controversy. I was a bit taken aback by some folks are about dissuading others from considering any of the false morel species. Bottom line, as you said - this is a poorly understood subject and one that seems ripe for mycological study.

Thanks also for the morel report. Had very limited success last weekend on the east slopes of the north Cascades in the 2000' - 2500' range but will try again this weekend. Also found a big haul of oyster mushrooms at a west-side campground.

Langdon Cook said...

Allison - And the scary thing is I'm just scratching the surface on the morel conundrum. Even the scientific names are probably wrong (since they're Old World hand-me-downs). More to come on these fungal beauties.

Heather - I suffer from Can't-Stand-To-Hear-My-Own-Voice Disease. Ply me with booze on a mushroom foray and maybe I'll narrate...

Caviar and Codfish - Thanks for stopping by. Yeah, falsies are a bit creepy. Abby Normal from Young Frankenstein comes to mind.

John - I need to look more for oysters. They're so tasty breaded and fried. And when you find a good patch you're talking *poundage*.

Anonymous said...

Hey Lang,
Glad to see you're finally starting to find some. It won't be long here in SW MT now. Runoff is on for real now and rivers are all in or near flood stage with the mini heat wave we just had here.

Michele at A House Called Nut said...

In Finland, where I live, gyromitra esculenta is considered a delicacy and is commonly eaten. I've even seen it sold (already treated) in grocery stores and fresh sales are allowed as long as they're accompanied by warnings. I've only dared to pick them once myself and eat them rarely, but they sure are tasty (in fact, I just blogged about it! in case you're interested:

I just found your blog recently, and am already hooked. Can't wait til the book comes out!

Ra said...

So sad that I'm not in the area right now to hunt morels! I think I'll miss the season too, as I won't be returning until 24 June. The itch had gotten to me before I left and I found one morel for all my time and travel.

But hey, if you give me money, I'll figure out the species conundrum =D

Anonymous said...

Love this blog, although my first one I have ever followed for the last several years. It is morel madness! We have a cabin in Cle Elum we vacation at. For the past 4yrs we've gone on forays and become avid shroomers. This year was the first year we saw early morels or verpa's along with true morels. Amazing how close they look alike but not. As people on the Mt eat them, we wont risk it. Can't wait to go up and hunt more morels and try out your semolina gnocchi recipe. CookNgrl. I can't seem to get it to post from aim/aol?

foragedandfoundedibles said...

Verpas, completely edible cooked but why? They are a soggy flavorless mushroom. Gyromitras edible with same advise about cooking thoroughly. G.esculenta suppossedly has higher concentration of mmh but almost nonexistent amounts found in pnw species. Plus it breaks down once heated completely. G.gigas is a delicious mushroom with very little evidence of mmh if at all. They are sold commercially. For people that are still weary about there edibility try and find a poisining in the pnw from eating cooked specimens. Now try and find a poisining involving beef, chicken, green onions, peanuts, spinach, you get my point. Thanks lang.

Anonymous said...

I just noticed this and it's 2012:) To many contradictions for me to put my liver on the line. Wow last year was the best year for morels. We had a blast! Found morels here in Snohomish under the landscaping/heather in April. Husband just found some on the jobsite in Cle Elum yesterday. Yeah!