Morchella esculenta

Work-study student Katherine is the author of today’s entry. She writes:

Thank you Marianne (aka marcella2@Flickr) for today’s photo of Morchella esculenta.

Morchella esculenta sensu lato, or in the broad sense, is distributed globally. However, the “species” is taxonomically confusing, as explained by Michael Kuo: “The short version of the story is: the name has been confusing since it was created; it has been applied uncritically for centuries; and, here in North America, we have at least four genetically distinct candidates for the name (which represents a European mushroom that can’t be compared to our mushrooms until someone figures all of this out)” (Michael has also posted a longer version). The species was originally described from collections made in Eurasia, and since this photograph is from The Netherlands, it may indeed be the true species as originally published. Then again, perhaps not; in “Species diversity within the Morchella esculenta group (Ascomycota: Morchellaceae) in Germany and France”, a 2004 paper by Kellner et al. (doi:10.1016/j.ode.2004.07.001), differences in the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) region within the nuclear ribosomal DNA (nrDNA) of 22 different samples of Morchella esculenta s.l., suggested the presence of three distinct species.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has a species profile for Morchella esculenta that makes mention of the taxonomic difficulties of the group, as well as a detailed description of the fruiting bodies and spore deposits.

Species of this genus in general are collectively referred to as the morels or sponge mushrooms. The name of the genus is derived from the old German word Morchell, a term meaning edible fungus or morel, and the species name from the Latin esculentus meaning edible, or good to eat. Unsurprisingly, Morchella esculenta, or the common morel, is considered one of the best edible fungi, and highly sought after by mushroom hunters. Fruiting bodies of Morchella esculenta are noted by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew as being “quite nutritious, containing high-quality protein, and being rich in minerals and low in calories”. However, all sources I’ve read also note that they must be cooked prior to consumption! Uncooked morels are known to cause digestive upsets. Morels showing signs of decay should also be avoided, as they can be poisonous. David Arora in his book Mushrooms Demystified notes that one should always “split them length-wise to check for millipedes, slugs, and other critters that like to hide inside”. Despite these issues, morels “[are] so esteemed in Europe that people used to set fire to their own forests in hopes of eliciting a bountiful morel crop the next spring!” Morels may also be preserved by being canned, frozen, or dried.

The Wikipedia entry on Morchella esculenta claims that this fungus species has also been used in Chinese traditional medicines for the treatment of “indigestion, excessive phlegm, and shortness of breath”. Recent laboratory studies (in rodents) have shown “anti-tumour effects, immunoregulatory properties, fatigue resistance, and antiviral effects” and “antioxidant properties”.

Morchella esculenta

10 responses to “Morchella esculenta”

  1. phillip heart skipped a beat when the picture came up..!…my family lived in Iowa when i was a child…many years ago…and my grandfather was the King of Morels..he knew every secret part of the forests where they grew…i remember going with mom and dad..aunts and uncles… find the elusive morels..once you found one…keep that same stare..and look around but not moving…and like magic..they are everywhere..we would bring several full burlap bags home..grandma would split them..soak them in salt water..bread them in cracker crumbs..flour..and egg..fry them in large cast iron skillets…and the feast would begin..!

  2. Anne

    Oh Phillip, me too!! These used to grow under the tree in front of the house where I grew up in IL. I can’t believe I ever took these things for granted. What I wouldn’t give for that tasty breaded yumminess right now!

  3. Diana Ferguson

    Who knew – this could be so lovely. Thanks for the picture and for posting it as the Photo of the Day.

  4. wendy

    A Morel by any name would seem to taste as sweet! But one must truly go out and gather. Dried Morels in Switzerland cost almost 30Sfr. a gram. When I saw the picture I could understand how inviting the holes and tunnels might be to ravenous little critters. Wonderful shot! It summons up not only the taste and smell of the mushroom but the smell of the damp woods as well. Thanks as always!

  5. Sue Vargas

    Here in Western Michigan they are found all over in the spring. Delicious fried in butter with scrambled eggs. The best is the infamous holiday dish “Green Bean Casserole” with morels mixed in – Fabulous!

  6. Barbara Lamb

    As a child in Virginia I used to collect these with my father. Locals called them “merkels”, supposedly a variation of miracle, which described their tendency to pop up out of nowhere. Last spring in southeastern Ontario we found some so large we were able to stuff them – delicious!

  7. Eric Simpson

    I have yet to eat a morel. To the best of my knowledge, they don’t grow in SoCal, and I’ve never seen any in the grocery store (and I’ve looked). In fact, I don’t remember even ever seeing a spongiform mushroom, anywhere (though my wilderness travels have been restricted to the West Coast and Southwest). The only wild mushroom I know by sight and location are chanterelles in southwestern Oregon, but it’s been almost 30 years since I had that pleasure.

  8. phillip

    ..Eric..morels have almost zero shelf life after being picked..they will turn slimy and collapse after a day or so..once in a while you can find them in upgrade stores…you can can them in brine..or dry them..not like the fresh..we used to get chanterelles from the Berkley hills..California..some as large as 10#…and the most beautiful golden yellow color..

  9. James Singer

    Eric… SoCal is rich in meadow mushrooms, or it was when I grew up there. All during the depression we picked baskets of them. Fried in butter, they’re every bit as tasty as the morels I’ve foraged in WVA and MD.

  10. enid

    Many years ago I had a small plot of land around my country home, and I wanted so much to have Fireweed grow in the garden. I gathered seed pods and burned the ground in an area where I wanted to nurture these plants (evidently fireweed was the first plant to grow after the bombings in England after WW2). The next year, instead of a patch of Fireweed, I found a few of the ugliest mushrooms growing there. Being young and dumb, I beat the things to death because I didn’t know what they were and I didn’t want my young kids sampling them. When I learned the error of my ways, I tried to encourage the morels to come up again, but they spurned me. Thanks for that info today. I had no idea that morels seem to like to come on the burned land. Although I don’t care to eat mushrooms, I now think they are quite beautiful and wonderful art subjects.
    By the way, the fireweed didn’t come up in my back yard, but somehow some wayward seeds took hold in the front yard, and I was thrilled!

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