Morel Foraging Guide

Complete Guide to Foraging Morels in British Columbia (2021)

Morels are one of the most popular wild mushrooms, but identification of separate species is difficult. This guide has information on how to find, identify, and prepare morels for British Columbia.

Morel Watch 2021: Morels are definitely sprouting up all around the island and British Columbia. Keep an eye out...everywhere! Even your garden!

Read our journal for updates on recent mushroom hunting trips.

What Are Morels?

The common name "morel" is used to refer to fungi in the genus Morchella. These are known as the "true" morels.

Morel mushrooms are distinctive and quite "alien" looking compared to most mushrooms. However, even with this distinctive look, morel identification should be approached with caution.

Morels have both poisonous lookalikes and some toxic characteristics of their own. Morels are also highly variable, and even the experts disagree on the classification and naming of various species. Furthermore, many recognized species of morel are virtually indistinguishable from each other.

To complicate matters further, morels are possibly both saprobic (feeding on dead organic matter) and mycorrhizal (developing symbiotic relationships with certain plants). Ultimately, this characteristic could vary between species, habitats, or even within a single individual's lifetime.

Here we will refer to some broad "types" of morels, like fire morels, blonde or yellow morels, and garden morels. We will also attempt to make claims which apply as generally as possible to these types, as they occur in Vancouver Island and British Columbia.

Before you go, make sure to read our Safety Guide for Mushroom Foraging.

Black morel growing from the forest floor

How to Identify Morels

Morels can be identified by their blunt, cone-shaped caps which are covered in deep pits (not lobes, folds, or wrinkles). Sometimes those pits extend up the length of the mushroom.

Morel stalks are usually a white or pale cream colour, with a rough grainy exterior and completely hollow interior.

Cap colours range from pale brown to grey to black. Some morels are covered in a fine, velvety fur.

The entire length of a morel cap is joined to the stem.

As with many mushroom, individual morels can vary a lot in shape, size, and colour.

How do you tell true morels from false morels? Keep reading to find out.

Morel Identification:

  1. Morel caps are cone shaped and pitted (not folded or lobed).

  2. Morel caps are joined with the stem along their entire length.

  3. The bodies of morels are completely hollow.

Where to Find Morels in British Columbia

Given the wide variety of morel species, you can find morels growing in many different habitats.

"Natural" morels are those which appear unprompted by events like forest fires. In British Columbia, some of these morel species are associated with cottonwood, ornamental ash, or old fruit trees.

Burn morels (AKA fire morels) grow in areas that were burned during the previous year's summer. Fire morels are also known to grow in large numbers, which is why so many people seek out burn sites to look for and harvest them.

Morchela importuna grows in landscaped areas, like wood chips and even gravel. These morels have long, elongated pits that can run the length of their caps (see below).

The wide variety of morel types and habitats explains why some people spend years searching the back country for morels only to one day find them growing in their own backyard.

As the saying goes: "Morels are everywhere, and impossible to find"

Summary: Morels grow in disturbed areas, burn sites, under hardwood trees like cottonwood, and on wood chips used in landscaping.

Path running through a forest of mixed trees on Vancouver Island

My recommendation: Look for morels in mixed forests, under hardwoods, on relatively open ground (with some moss but mostly free of undergrowth).

And according to the Vancouver Mycological Society: "Morels often grow in areas where Calypso orchid flowers are fully open, or where apple or wild crabapple trees are blooming or nettles are 5 ½ inches high. "

Morchella importuna, landscape morel mushroom on Vancouver Island
Above: Morchella importuna, the landscape morel. Picture Source.

Landscape & Garden Morels

Morchella importuna is a relatively common variety of morel that tends to grow in gardens and other landscaped areas in British Columbia. It can be found growing from stones, gravel, lawns, and wood chips.

Appearance:

  • Tall and slender shape.

  • Extended pits with internal ridges, like ladders climbing the length of the mushroom.

  • Pits have darker ridges and are often quite rough.

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When to Find Morels in BC

Morel-picking season:

  • Morels are a spring mushroom. April is peak season in lower British Columbia for most species.

  • However, morels can appear from March until June, depending on local conditions and that year's weather.

  • Follow morels uphill as the weather becomes warmer, staying on drier sun-facing slopes.

  • Blossoming trees, like dogwoods, are a good indicator for the start of morel season.

  • As with most mushrooms, a good rain followed by week or so of sunshine probably indicates a good time to go picking.

  • Morels grow slowly, so the picking season for morels can be up to 2 months long in the spring.

Morel Growing Temperature

There are varying recommendations regarding the optimal ground temperature for morel growing. These will likely vary by place, and the specific variety of morel being hunted. However, for general benchmarks, you can regard anything below 10°C as too cold, and a consistent average ground and air temperature above 10°C as a good time to start hunting.

To measure ground temperature, use an ordinary baking thermometer. Place it in the ground in a shady spot and wait a few seconds for it to adjust. For accurate results, take care to control for variables like time of day, location, moisture, and so on.

Yellow Morels on Vancouver Island

Yellow morels, also known as "blonde" morels, appear earlier than other varieties on Vancouver Island.

Blonde morels typically appear first at sea level and in more exposed or sunny locations.

These morels are also not too fussy about where they grow. They can appear alongside a variety of plants and tree species.

Blonde morels do tend to be relatively solitary, so don't expect a bumper crop when you find some. In fact, it's not uncommon to find a single blonde morel all by itself with no others nearby.

Yellow morels can be identified by their pale-brown colour, giving them their common name "blonde".

Blonde or yellow morel mushroom growing under salal bushes on Vancouver Island BC
A single morel mushroom under salal and oregon grape bushes

How to Find & Pick Morels

Because of their texture and colour, morels can be very difficult to spot on the forest floor.

Get low to the ground so you can see their profile more easily.

Morels often grow in large patches. So if you find one, look carefully, there are probably more nearby. This isn't always the case though.

Morel mycelia are not as persistent as other mushrooms, so morel patches are not dependable hunting grounds in subsequent years. Some patches can be expected to produce in following years, but they may disappear as quickly as they appeared.

Since morels grow on or near the surface, cutting directly from the ground (close to the cap) is recommended. This will avoid getting dirt or debris on your harvested collection.

An Argument For Picking Morels

Some recommend saving the butts of morels for propagation. The idea is to wrap them in damp cardboard, wait for the mycelia to grow, and then plant the inoculated cardboard in a suitable environment.

Morel Toxins

Warning: Morels can accumulate toxins from their environment. Avoid picking them from potentially contaminated areas (like, orchards that may have used pesticides).

Keep reading for more information on the natural toxins found in morels.

Morel Indicator Species

There are a number of cup fungi species which function as decent indicator species for morels.

While they are not direct indicators, they do tend to coincide with the right habitat and time of year that morels prefer.

To the left, you can see a blonde forest morel growing next to a violet crown cup (or violet star cup), Sarcosphaera coronaria.

Other species to look for are Geopyxis carbonaria and Aleuria aurantia.

Of course, other indicators are the tree species that morels are often associated with. If climbing to elevation, look for pines and true firs (not Douglas) on drier, east-facing slopes.

Morel Mushroom Facts:

  • The word "morel" comes from the Latin maurus, which means "brown"

  • Morel mushrooms are a rich source of iron and vitamin D, with moderate levels of vitamins B2, B3, and B6

  • In North America, the yellow morel has many common names including "molly moocher", "haystack", and "dryland fish".

Lookalikes and False Morels

The term "false morel" is usually applied to species in the families Gyromitra, Verpa, and Helvella. These species are eaten by some (after careful preparation), especially species in the genus Verpa. However, eating any type of morel is an unpredictable endeavor to begin with - so you should only do so under the direction of a seasoned expert.

Picture of young Gyromitra infula, False Morel mushroom

Hooded False Morel

Gyromitra sp.

The above picture is probably G. infula as they develop lobes. G. esculenta are more deeply and elaborately wrinkled.

Infected Helvella vespertina mushroom, False Morel

Western Elfin Saddle

Helvella vespertina

The specimen in this picture is probably infected by another fungus. Caps are usually dark grey.

Early False Morel, Verpa Bohemica by Jason Hollinger

Early False Morel / Thimble Cap

Verpa conica & Verpa bohemica (pictured)

Photo by Jason Hollinger

False Morel Pictures

How Do You Tell A True Morel From A False Morel?

The cap:

  • Gyromitra caps are wrinkled, or folded. True Morels have deep pits, like an irregular honeycomb.

  • Gyromitra caps are usually reddish-brown in colour.

  • Verpa caps "overhang" their stems, more like regular mushrooms.

The body:

  • True morels are hollow inside.

  • Unlike True Morels, Verpa species are cottony on the inside, while Gyromitra species have chambers.

Keep this in mind:

  • True Morels are hollow and connected to their caps the entire length of their bodies. Their cap surface is pitted, not wrinkled.

What's In A Name? A Note On Morel Classification & Taxonomy

Many sources and guidebooks refer to the Yellow Morel in North America as Morchella esculenta. However, Kuo et al. note that, since Morel species are usually endemic to specific areas, it's unlikely that European Yellow Morels (the original esculenta) are the same as their North American counterparts. As such, Kuo uses the name Morchella esculentoides, the "oides" probably to indicate that they are "like" esculenta. Yellow Morels in North America are now also referred to as Morchella americana.

The terms "elata" and "esculenta" are now used to refer to groups of Morel species that have a common ancestor. Elata morels correspond to roughly the common Black Morel, and esculenta morels corresponds to the common Yellow Morel.

The esculenta group in the Pacific Northwest includes Morchella tomentosa (the Burn Morel, AKA the Black Stocking Morel, Black Foot Morel or Fuzzy-Foot Morel), and Morchella brunnea (the "Natural Black" Morel).

How to Cook Morels

Morels contain toxins which dissipate when heated.

Morels must be cooked before eating. Make sure to cook Morels in a well ventilated area, as the toxins can still be harmful as they evaporate from the cooking Morels.

The most common way to cook Morels is a low-heat saute in butter.

Preparing Morels

When cooking older morels, remove the stem or stipe.

Cut the cap lengthways, and check the inside for bugs.

Preserving & Storing Morels

Flash freeze Morels by soaking them in water and then putting them in a freezer. Spread them out so they don't all freeze into a clump.

Morels are well suited to drying. Leave them out in the sun with sufficient airflow, put a fan on them, or use an electronic dryer. Reconstitute Morels by soaking them in water or milk, which will likely take on the flavour of the Morels as well.

A pile of freshly harvested and washed Morel Mushrooms

Frequently Asked Questions About Morels

Q: How much do morels sell for?

A: Morels can sell for as much as $75 per 100 grams (dry).

Q: Why are morels so expensive?

A: Morels are expensive because they are not farmed; they have to be picked wild. This means a lot of extra costs associated with paying people to hike over hills and through forests to find and collect them.

Q: Can you farm morels?

A: Some have managed to farm morels, but with limited success. For example, the species Morchella rufobrunnea can be commercially grown due to their tendency to grow on wood chips. Some morels can also be propagated, by creating a Morel spore "soup" and spreading it in areas that favour Morel growth.

Q: What do morels taste like?

A: The taste of Morels is variously described as "nutty", "meaty", "umami", and "like mushrooms".

Q: Can morels make you sick? Can morels be poisonous?

Yes, Morels can make you sick. If they are undercooked, or cooked in an area without proper ventilation, the toxins within the Morel could poison you. Alternatively, every mushroom has some set of the population that they just don't agree with - that could be you with Morels.

Q: Can you eat half-free morels? Are half-free morels poisonous?

A: The half-free morel found in Western North America (Morchella populiphila) is edible. However, lacking a key identifier of True Morels, it is easier to confuse with various species of false morel, so be careful.

Q: Are dried morels good?

A: Some people prefer the taste of morels once they've been dried. They should be reconstituted and cooked though.

Q: What's the biggest morel ever found?

There are numerous reports of giant morels. The biggest morels ever found are over a foot tall! Morels can grow to such large sizes because they grow consistently over a long period of time if conditions are ideal.

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The BC government has published some very helpful resources for mushroom hunters. Visit the the "Mushroom Picking" page for the following resources:

  • General info on morels and mushroom picking

  • An interactive map showing burn sites from 2017 to 2019

  • Information on land use, access, and camping

  • Links to other official resources on mushrooms, foraging, and Canadian land use

Below I've quoted some useful information from the BC government on morel picking:

"Mushroom picking is allowed on provincial Crown land without a permit, but it’s illegal to pick mushrooms in a provincial or national park. On private land, pickers must get permission from the property owner to access the land and harvest mushrooms from it.

Harvesting tips:

  • When harvesting morel mushrooms, cut the stem above the ground. Do not pull or tear the mushroom out of the ground. This leaves the dirt in the forest instead of transferring the dirt to your collecting container.

  • Do not disturb the soil surface, since doing so can harm the mycelium (the underground, thread-like network that produces the mushrooms).

  • Only pick mushrooms that you will actually use. Broken and overmature morels may continue to spread their reproductive spores if they’re left untouched.

  • Confirm the mushroom’s identity with an experienced harvester, buyer or biologist."