Spring is the time of year when both plant and animal life flourishes. It is also the time of year when many of the most exquisite and choice mushrooms grow. For many people, among the best of the wild mushrooms is the morel. As with all wild mushrooms, however, proper identification is crucial, since many choice edible mushrooms have poisonous mushroom look-alikes.
How is a person to tell the difference in the case of morel mushrooms? Happily, this is almost a non-issue, as there are really no other mushrooms that really look like morels. Even broadly, the only exception is the false morel.
Both morels and false morels share the same habitat; mostly coniferous forests, though they can also be found in mixed and deciduous forests if the climate conditions and soil is right. Both mushroom species also grow at the same time of year, primarily in the spring with a few specimens growing in the fall. However, the two are easy to tell apart visually, and after picking a few morels, mushroom gatherers are not likely to mistake one for the other.
Depending on the source, usually between two and four subspecies of morel are found. These include yellow morels, brown morels, black morels, and white morels. Some sources place brown and black morels in one subspecies, and yellow and white morels in another, but in all cases the name is indicative of the outer coloration of the head. All four color variations are available in profuse numbers in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.
The head of a morel is loosely attached to the stem so when it is removed from the stem, it leaves a hollow area. This mushroom ranges greatly in size, from not much more than a half inch to several inches or more, measured from the base of the head to the top. They are rarely as broad even at the base as they are tall.
Most often, morels tend to be tapered from bottom to top so the top is a narrow rounded point. The head also is porous, looking similar to a sponge. This is a distinguishing feature.
False morels have much less color variation and are almost always brown or black. The fruiting body or head is hollow and has no stem. In appearance, they have none of the sponge-like appearance of the morel and instead look much more like depiction of brains, with numerous convolutions.
While false morels and morels share the same habitat and grow at the same time of year, it is difficult to mistake one for the other. What does muddy the waters a bit is that depending on the source; some will list false morels as poisonous while others will list it as edible. For instance, one mushroom expert in Oregon regularly ate false morels and cooked them for friends, none of which ever suffered ill effects except for perhaps over indulging.
It needs to be stressed, however, that people can have different reactions to different species. Some people are highly allergic to store bought button mushrooms, yet can eat wild morels with impunity. So even with morels, if you are eating them for the first time, eat only a small amount to make sure you don't have an adverse reaction. Even more caution should be taken for false morels.
Morel mushrooms actually have no mushroom look-alikes, though there is a mushroom that can be mistaken for it. Still, how poisonous even the false morel is, appears to vary from person to person. Proper identification, of morels or any other mushroom, is the key.