Hunting Black Morels – first of the season
As we were spooning in the eggs with asparagus and black morels I was just going on about yesterday, Bill mentioned that he should maybe say something about how to find the blacks - they’re a bit trickier than the main season blondes, but they have a special savor for being the first.
“Have at it! ” said I; and so here is some more from our resident guide to wild mushrooms:
THE FIRST MORELS OF THE SEASON
The first morels of the season are the hardest to find. They are not Morchella esculenta, the blonde varieties standing tall under elm and apple but the Eastern Black Morel, M. elata/angusticeps/conica complex.
These early morels usually will begin to fruit near the end of April in the Mid Hudson area, just as the forsythia blossoms fall to earth, the maples begin to leaf out and the black flies begin to bite. I found my first of this season on Saturday, April 25, as the spreading heat wave pushed the thermometer to the record breaking 89 degree mark.
Whereas the big blondes that appear later offer a nice contrast to their background, the early blacks blend in so well with the fallen, weathered leaf litter that it takes a patient, trained eye to spot them. They appear as shadows pushing through shadows.
Morels apparently utilize both mycorrhizal and saprophytic feeding strategies at different parts of their life cycle but overall the blacks are probably the more prone to feed on organic litter than the blondes. Unlike the proclivity of the blondes to fruit under Apple and Elm, the blacks appear in a much more varied assortment of habitats: I have found them under Norway Spruce, White and Red Oak, Maple, White Pine, Apple Trees, in wood chip mulch, in old foundations, stone walls, along railroad tracks and blacktop, under wild grapevine, near Barberry and Bramble and in open mixed hardwood forests.
Unlike the Western Black ‘Burn Site’ Morel, the Eastern Black variety is not thought to grow in such a habitat. For a period of years I investigated every forest fire site that I could find in the Mid-Hudson area. Nada! Zilch! Not a one! At one nature museum where I was asked to lecture I was told of regular fruitings that would follow the seasonal burning of a field next to the museum, but I was never able to verify this.
A word about names: Scientists have ‘identified’ and named about 200 species of morels, and a rich literature of their distinctions exists both at the macro and micro levels. In recent years genetic research has indicated an impressive genetic diversity in this group of fungi. One geneticist has said that no two morels she has ever investigated were genetically identical, even if they arose in a cluster from a common mycelium.
In addition, identical genes appear to give rise to an assortment of biological forms. A recent 170 page reassessment of this state of affairs (from the US Forest Service) reports that “calling morel taxonomy ‘problematic’ is an understatement” and concluded that the use of scientific names must be considered the equivalent of imprecise common names. Conservatively, three major groups appear to clump together in genetic analyses: these are the black, the yellow, and the half free morels. The full report can be accessed in four parts here. (see esp. p. 14 of part A for nomenclature and see later parts for developmental, ecological and genetic features)
The Eastern Black Morel is a hard mushroom to cut your eye teeth on, but if you must, then try a well drained hillside in open woods. Put the sun at your back and let it do its work relaxing your step, melting your gaze as you slowly move across the hill side. Enjoy the mottled leaf of the Trout Lilly, the white clouds of Spring Beauty, the yellow haze of Witch Hazel. When you come upon a spot where the Turkeys have scratched pause just a bit longer. If you are lucky you might see a pine cone out of place and realize that this is what you have come for.