Little Forest Gnomes
text and photos : Norma A. Hubbard (June 2019)
When I am walking in the woods, I am always on the hunt for what is new or different. Some plants in nature are very good at hiding, and morel mushrooms (Morchella spp) are masters at staying out of sight while being in plain view. Mycology is the study of mushrooms, and mycologists and amateur mushrooms hunters have to train their eyes in order to find these in demand fungi.
There are various morels and I think the morels in our area are Morchella esculenta. I must caution everyone about eating mushrooms found in the wild; I might be able to find these elusive mushrooms, but I am not an expert! In addition, no one should eat raw morels. Morels contain a small amount of hydrazine, which is harmful to ingest, but it burns off when the mushroom is cooked making it safe to eat. Putting that scary thought aside, morels do have nutritional value. They contain vitamin D, B complex, fiber, minerals, and are high in protein, but as one mushroom hunter said, maybe part of the protein comes from the bugs found in the cap! Morels are best stored dried if not used while fresh. While I am not keen on eating them, several cookbooks list them as one of the tastiest wild mushrooms.
Morels remind me of gnomes, especially as they are found among the forest debris, often hidden by leaves. The cap is yellow-brown and is elongated and pointed, just like the gnomes’ hat! The cap is textured like honeycomb, hence the reason there are bugs in them and the need to wash and cook them before eating. Morels grow between 5-20 cm (2-7.5”) and there are usually one or two together with others growing near by.
Mushrooms have two parts, cap and stem. This is important to note when trying to identify morels. Common morels have the stem and cap joined and are hollow. I cut one in half to show the hollow insides (see picture). There are false morels – which are not good to eat – that have caps that hang over the stems and the stems are solid. Fungi are divided into two groups, Ascomycetes and Basidiomycetes. Morels are Ascomycetes. This group produces spores that spread by the wind. Therefore, when you find a morel, check downwind of it for more fungi.
Until only recently, farmers have not been able to reproduce morels commercially. According to Penn State, China has achieved some success in cultivating morels. In North America, cultivating morels has had limited success, so generally they only grow in the wild. Due to this, there are numerous websites dedicated to morel seekers! Apparently, morels are quite exciting to find and I have to say, I was delighted to find them on my property.
So where is the best place to find them? This varies between hunters, morels grow in forests and seem to favour areas with oak trees or old apple orchards, large amounts grow on sites after forest fires, on edges of meadows, along old railroad tracks, on rotting logs, and that is to name just a few locations. I found my morels an area between an oak and a pine tree. These types of trees may have a symbiotic relationship with morels, but this doesn’t appear to be scientifically proven. It seems these mushrooms are quite mysterious. Morels are spring or early summer mushrooms, so now is the time to look for them.
Morels are very expensive to buy and have many dedicated fans, so when I told a colleague that I had composted a morel after I cut it in half, she exclaimed, “That’s almost sacrilege!” Oops, next time I will bring them to her. I will continue to enjoy finding new and exciting bits of nature on my land and most of the time, I am quite happy to leave nature just where it is.
Sources: Jordan, P. & Wheeler, S., The Ultimate Mushroom Book (2001); Volk, Thomas J., Tom Volk’s Fungi [online]