Half-free Morel

This has not been a good year for mushrooms. Several factors (temperature, moisture, substrate, among others) appear to influence the formation of these fruiting fungal bodies. I am not certain why there are no mushrooms to be found in all the usual places this season, but believe that our near-drought conditions may definitely play some role.

Earlier this year I was on a mushroom hike in Oregon. One of the species we expected to find and identify were the flavorful “morels”, prized by mushroom hunters. None were to be found that day. Yet to my surprise I recently found another morel, the half-free morel (Morchella semilibera), growing near our back deck (Modoc County CA). On rare occasions I will water the grass a little. Perhaps this was enough to cause the mushrooms to form?

Half-free morels are distinguished from other morels of the same genus, similar-looking thimblecaps of the Verpa genus and the mostly poisonous false morels by cutting them in half lengthwise. The half-free morel’s cap is attached to the stem 1/3rd or more of the way with the remainder of the cap hanging free like a skirt. Other morel species have caps that are completely attached to the stem. False morels have a chambered interior while the caps of thimblecaps hang completely free. All Morchella morels have a hollow stem or stalk.

Although the shape can vary, mature specimens have a honeycombed cap that is conical with black/brown ridges and lighter brown pits. The stem is white to cream and usually is lightly covered with darker granules.

When talking to mycologists (mushroom experts), I have discovered that many are frustrated now that DNA sequencing is becoming common in classifying mushrooms. DNA is revealing “new” mushroom species that are impossible to separate on their physical characteristics. Are these DNA differences enough to designate new species or should the old classifications based on physical traits be maintained? I am not going to get into that argument here. However recently DNA has shown two half-free morels, similar in appearance, one in the East and one in the West of the United States. Since all this has not been completely sorted out yet, I will not be absolutely scientifically accurate and will simply continue to call the half-free morel M. semilibera.

Half-free morels are widely distributed throughout North America, growing in damp, open hardwood woods or less commonly under conifers. This mushroom decomposes dead or decaying matter (saprobic) and can also be involved in a symbiotic relationship with trees via their rootlets (mycorrhizal).

Half-free morels are edible, but I have not tried them. Like all edible wild mushrooms, these mushrooms should be cooked before eating and never eaten in great quantities. And most certainly do not eat a mushroom based on the meagre information in this post.

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