Two Species or One?

Not-quite mature morels. Foragers colloquially call the ones with white ridges and dark pits “grays” and the pale ones “yellows,” but the distinction may be superficial.

During morel season the south end of the kitchen counter gets commandeered: there’s a maple cutting board, brush, paring knife, bowl for trim, and the day’s take of mushrooms piled on a paper towel, or paper towels if the hunting has been good. A cast iron pan on the range sees daily use; the overflow we can’t eat immediately gets threaded onto fishing line and hung to dry in the dark threshold between the living room and office. The morels go on fat and lush – a mature yellow might be the length of your hand – and in a week’s time they’ve shriveled down to a fraction of their original size, perfect for packing into quart mason jars and freezing.

My knowledge of and affection for mushrooms is blue collar, forged through foraging. And yet I peripherally follow the taxonomic debates around morels because I like things to make sense, and calling every morel, no matter how different looking and different behaving, Morchella esculanta – that a name coined by Linnaeus referring to a European mushroom – has never been satisfying. Scientists are working to clarify things – this paper that ran in the Journal Mycologia suggests 19 subspecies in North America and Canada. And yet there’s still a fair amount of haze around the subject. The current thinking is that the Northeastern “yellow morel” should now be called M. esculentoides, so amend your old guidebooks if you haven’t already. But there’s still that pesky matter of whether the gray ones are the same species as the yellow ones. Many foragers come to believe they are distinct, because if you pick enough you start to see patterns. I have hunting grounds where the morels seem reliably yellow, and others where they seem reliably gray. The yellows seem to come a bit earlier than the grays, and get bigger. But according to DNA-driven research that’s looked into this, we’re wrong, and the so-called grays are just immature versions of the yellows.

  1. Andy Crosier → in Shaftsbury
    May 25, 2018

    Dave, Thanks for the morels. They were better than bacon with my breakfast! Tried to attach the pic but failed. Technically challenged? Your summer “Northern Woodlands” magazine is a beautiful piece of work! Thanks to all who put so much into it. I also have a far greater fondness for our Ash trees after your article. Thanks again, Andy

  2. Michael Herrick → in Red Hook, Dutchess County, NY
    May 25, 2018

    I agree with Dave that the dark ones seem to appear later than the yellow ones.  I’ve never noticed that when they do appear they look any less mature than the yellows.

    I’m wondering if anyone has noticed that morels may have something like mast years.  Last year I found many more than I ever had in over 10 years of covering the same ground,  this year, though conditions seemed excellent I found many fewer than I’ve ever found, and the ones I did find were in areas where I’d never found them before, while the areas that almost always produce well were bare.

  3. Dave Mance → in Corinth, VT
    May 29, 2018

    I had a similar experience this year, Michael, in that many of my proven grounds did not produce well. But I did find good flushes in places that were new to me, so all in all my volume picked this year was about the same as last year. Last year’s picking window by me ran from April 30th to May 11; this year’s ran from May 14 to May 23, so quite a bit later. I seemed to find more around elm this year than I did last year. I, too, have wondered about mushroom mast years, but have been unable to come up with anything definitive beyond wet years are good and dry years are not. Would love to hear others’ observations.

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