Marvelous Morels

It’s been a good year for morels throughout much of the country, though your own mileage may vary. I picked my first “naturals” in the third week in April and the action in Washington State hasn’t slowed since.

Mushroom hunters across North America have had a chance to put new names to several familiar faces this spring. Last year, in the September-October issue of Mycologia, Michael Kuo et al proposed a revision to morel taxonomy that added a number of new species to the lineup. (An identification key can be found here.) For the first time, those of us in the West could reliably identify our beloved natural black morel as Morchella snyderi, with its habitat in unburned forest, lacunose stem, and black ridges on the cap. Another not-so-scientific identifying feature that I use, especially in areas where naturals and burn morels are in close proximity, is feel: naturals are noticeably cool to the touch.

We’ve also seen fair numbers of that confounding morel, the “mountain blond,” found in unburned western montane forests of mixed fir and pine (a commercial hunter I know insists that ponderosa must be present nearby to find this mushroom). Some years we get very few, for reasons that are not readily apparent, and their fruiting tends to be in scattered locales. Mountain blonds have the same coloration as yellow morels (i.e. Morchella esculentoides), but their morphology is more akin to black morels; turns out they’re part of the black morel group (or clade), a taxonomic revelation that didn’t surprise anyone who works with these mushrooms from year to year. While they’re one of our most beautiful morels, sadly, their flavor in the pan is less than striking. In the new classification, they carry the apt name Morchella frustrata.

In addition to the naturals, mushroom hunters in the Pacific Northwest have benefitted from the region’s fire ecology, with a number of last year’s burns producing decent—if not epic—morel picking across eastern Washington and Idaho. So far the biggest of them all, the 45,000-acre Table Mountain complex, has proved something of a bust. Never have so many footsteps yielded so few mushrooms. This burn is getting stomped by a stampede of both commercial and recreational pickers, and the lower elevation habitat never had a chance to take off with so much pressure. Hopefully the crowds will thin as more ground becomes available in Idaho and elsewhere and we’ll have a decent pick on top at higher elevation. Meanwhile, the mushroom hunter using strategery has done well in a host of smaller burns.

Anyone with experience picking burn morels knows there are lots of different looking species that emerge from the ash, especially in the greater Pacific Northwest. How many of these are different enough in their DNA to warrant species status remains to be seen. So far we have Morchella sextelata and M. septimelata, which are apparently impossible to separate without a microscope, plus M. capitata, told by its chambered stem, and the visibly distinctive “gray” or “fuzzyfoot” morel, M. tomentosa. The latter is perhaps the most coveted morel by chefs in the know; large and beefy, it’s one of the last of the burn morels to show and is just getting started where I’ve been hunting. There are others. A morel that looks just like the mountain blond, M. frustrata, appears sparingly in burns as well. And then there’s the banana…and the greenie…

Morels pair especially well with seafood. The dish pictured at top and bottom is pan-seared sea scallops with fingerling potatoes and sautéed morels in a green pea sauce. A simple and elegant way to enjoy one of the fleeting culinary treasures of spring.

4 thoughts on “Marvelous Morels

  1. AndrewM

    The Kuo et alia proposal was preceded by a French proposal, which although less thorough, may take precedence, and change almost everything – again. See the latest issue of Fungi magazine for “Morels – The Name Game” by Britt Bunyard.

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  2. jill

    Exquisite photo. I’ve been sauteeing morels in EVOO with greens from my garden and throwing over baked salmon. Dinner last night and breakfast this morning. But I just buy them from the foraged edibles guys at the farmer’s market.

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  3. K Lambert

    Looking forward to your new book.
    I’ve been having pretty good luck up near the Table Mt. fire area – but not in the burned patches. Rather, I’ve been able to find many pounds of naturals away from the burns (and away from the many commercial pickers.) Where I hunted at the end of June last year, I found 5 lbs. the first week of June. Perhaps because of that heat wave mid-May preceded & follwed by some rain…
    Still trying to dial in the spring porcini – found a few last year, mostly accidentally. I know the habitat to target. Any thoughts on elevation right now? Cheers.

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  4. Langdon Cook

    AndrewM – I’d heard about a competing study. The name game indeed! Will check out Fungi Mag.

    Jill – We love them simply sautéed and tossed over salmon, too. A seasonal pairing that can’t be beat!

    K Lambert – Me too, and I prefer the naturals. As for spring porcini, the season got off to a great start and now appears to be fizzling with the heat wave. There was a big pop last weekend. Unless we get some badly needed rain and there’s a second flush, I’d start checking higher elevation spots, which is to say above 3K feet.

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