Tuesday 2 July 2019

Sensory Impressions for Diagnosis

Amanita vernicoccora
©Matthew J. L. Kilger

Use Your Senses

When gathering information to help identify mushrooms, your senses can provided key identification information about the mushrooms that you want to identify. 

Obviously, audio input is not a factor; however, visual inputs, olfactory inputs, somatosensory inputs, and gustatory inputs can all provide keys that may help narrow down, or positively identify mushrooms, at least to genus or section, if not to species. 

Visual information

Vision is the primary way that we interact with our surroundings, for most of us. We rarely smell or taste something before we see it. 

It also produces the majority of the clues that we need to capture to identify a mushroom. 

In today's world, we can easily share our visual information by means of the ubiquitous camera phones that most of us carry everywhere we go. Especially in the last few years, where these devices are capable of capturing glorious detail and definition. 

Use this tool, as much as you are able, to capture these data for later reference, and to share with those who may help you to identify a find. 

You can capture the surroundings and terrain, the substrate in which your mushroom grows, and possible associated plants or trees, with ease. 

Not only, of course, can you capture that; but, capture in situ images of the mushroom, to show how it is growing. 

Be sure to carefully excavate at least one specimen and capture all aspects of it. Take images of the top of the cap, and the bottom. Gather a profile view of it, and be sure to get good images of the arrangement of lamellae and their attachment to the stipe. 

Capture the stipe, the annulus (where present), and any tissue that appears at the base of the stipe. 

Cross-section images can also be of use, especially when checking for staining reactions, or looking at internal structures, like a hollow stipe. 

Note that video is not optimal for identification. You cannot easily zoom in on a video that someone else has taken, or stop it on a frame that shows key characteristics which may be needed. Also, frankly, most of us are fairly shaky when it comes to filming details and we pan too quickly over things. 

Video DOES have some use, however, in showing the speed at which a stain reaction may occur; but, this is about the limit of a video file's ability to help in identification. 

In short, take pictures of everything about the mushroom.

Make sure that shots are in-focus, as well. This can be difficult with some phones, but it is imperative that details not be glossed over by poor focus. 

With that information alone, a skilled person can identify most mushrooms to species. In some cases, only to genus; but, those are an exception. 


Second to visual input, the somatosensory system provides the most data to our brains. 

Tactile impressions of mushrooms can contribute greatly to identification. They can mean the difference between Lactarius rubidus, or a host of similar-looking mushrooms. 

Unfortunately, we don't have a way to share the sensations that we receive through this input channel, so we have to learn to record these inputs through language. 

Sometimes that can be difficult - sensation isn't always easy to explain. "Slippery, but not slimy" can feel pretty vague, but do be as detailed as you can. 

Most of the time, of course, sensations such as "rough", "firm", "brittle", "powdery", and the like can be enough. 

Be sure to, again, gather information from the whole mushroom. Does that fuzzy-looking cap feel warty, or furry, or smoother than it looks? What about that stipe? Does it crumble or shatter? Does it break like a green stick, leaving frayed ends? What can we learn from it and the way that it feels? 

Don't worry - it's perfectly safe to touch anything. We'll talk about that a little later. 


This is one of the really important things that most people completely fail to capture, or to adequately describe. 

The aroma that a mushroom creates can be the difference between a toxic and edible Agaricus species, so be sure to pay attention to this. 

Bring the mushroom to your face and give a good, long sniff. Sniff the top, and under the gills, as well. Not all parts of the mushroom put off the same strength of aroma. 

Try to capture that sensation in words. "Mushroomy" is entirely to vague to be of any use. Some mushrooms might smell different, to different people, as well. For example, Morchella importuna, to me, smell bitter and a little smokey - something like the faintest of ashtray aromas, mixed in with a nuttiness and the usual fungal aroma. 

Some Amanita species smell very much like a potato... or like rotting meat... or like bleach. If you can find good comparisons, to which we'll all be able to relate, you'll be much further along in describing this information. 


When tasting a mushroom for diagnosis, do not just lick it. 

Yes, people have told me that they got nothing when they licked the mushroom. That is the expected result of simply licking a mushroom. 

To taste, you need to chew - not just bite, chomp, chomp again, and spit. Chew. 

Take your time. Chew for thirty seconds or more. Chew and move all around the mouth, as we do have different concentrations of receptors in different parts of our mouths - even our cheeks. 

Take note of the way that the flavor changes as you chew, especially if it starts one way, and then goes somewhere else. Did it start sweet and finish bitter? Note that. 

Of course, there's the occasional one that you simply will not be able to chew for that long. I'm looking at you, Russula. Some mushrooms are extremely pungent and spicy, and warrant spitting after only a few seconds. Some are so bitter that your may wish that your mouth were detachable. Sorry to say, that no amount of rinsing is going to quell that bitter. A little salt may help, though (seriously - always carry a packet of salt, if you can.)

Also, do make sure to spit out any mushroom that you taste. Ingestion of unknown mushrooms is, as we professionals put is, a Bad Idea. 

Yes. It is safe, which brings us to the next section... 

Safety and mythology

While it is true that taste and touch do not tell us, alone, if a mushroom is edible or toxic - that information can help us determine whether the mushroom that we are working to identify is safe to eat or not. 

In the case of Russulaceae, for example, if it is not pungent or spicy, it is perfectly safe to cook and eat (at least, in North America and Europe). 

These tests are perfectly safe to perform. 

There is no mushroom on the planet that can poison you through skin contact - even contact with thin, sensitive skin, like the mouth. 

Mycotoxins must be ingested to be effective.*

Now, it has been cautioned that a very few species of Suillus can cause contact dermatitis in some individuals. As someone who's prone to such skin inflammation, I have never had this issue, nor have I spoken with a single individual who has. 

You can safely touch any mushroom. 

Similarly, you can safely taste any mushroom.

Yes, that is right. Stuff it in the ol' gob and chew it to paste with impunity. 

Just, do spit it out after. 

Yes, be thorough, but you don't need to worry about a rinse, unless that just makes you feel better. The small bits that lodge between the teeth are nowhere near enough to cause any harm, even if you were to swallow them. Sola dosis facit venenum - the dose makes the poison. Anything, in small enough quantity, is not poisonous. When it comes to mushrooms, just the amount that may linger in your mouth after tasting is not enough to be harmful. 


To properly identify a mushroom, we need to gather information about it. Not all of that information is something that we'll think about, while in the field, so documentation of it is imperative. Better yet, bring home a specimen or three, for later evaluation - warm mushrooms offer more to the nose and mouth, anyway. 

Capture as much information as possible, and use it to your advantage. Take pictures, and be liberal with them - it isn't like you have to worry about developing costs, right? 

Be safe, and happy hunting! 

Wednesday 29 May 2019

Picking Mushrooms for Identification

Geopora cooperi - ©M. Kilger

"I desired to know what Mushrooms they had in the Market. I found but few, at which I was surpris'd, for I have all my Life been very Curious and inquisitive about this kind of Plant, but I was absolutely astonish'd to find, that as for Champignons, and Moriglio's, they were as great strangers to 'em as if they had been bred in Japan."--William King's Journey to London, 1699, demonstrating the continuing English suspicion of fungi.

Episode VIII: A New Find

One day, a few years ago, I was picking Morels in a burn and came across a likely-looking 'shrump.

When I brushed the duff off of the top, I was shocked to find something that I had never seen before. Initially, it just looked like a Morel with a bit of dirt on top of it; but, pulling it up revealed it to be something far different.

Immediately, I brushed it as clean as possible, and bisected it to get a better look at its structure. Could this be some sort of bizarrely deformed Gyromitra??

I captured a few images of the mushroom in situ, brushed off, but whole, and bisected. I shot them off to one of the best identifiers with whom I am acquainted, and they pointed me in the right direction to discover which species I had found. This was my first experience with Geopora cooperi, and I learned a good bit from it.

You picked a mushroom that you didn't know!  

We have all seen it, in the online mushroom community, and even sometimes in person: "Why did you pick those mushrooms, if you don't know what they are?"

The answer is very simple: "Because I didn't know what it was, and I need a few specimens to work with for identification."

Realistically, we can take all of the images that we want and note as much information as possible about the environment in which a particular mushroom is growing, and do all of the things right - but still be missing information vital to the identification of that particular mushroom.

There is no substitute for having at least one (and preferably a number of them) specimen in hand.

With specimens in hand you can do many things that are simply not feasible in the field - microscopic inspection of the structures in the mushroom, such as spores, spore-bearing tissue, pileal tissues, etc.; chemical reagent tests; staining/bruising tests; changes in aroma due to temperature; as well as just a very thorough review of the morphology of the mushroom in question.

Why are you killing mushrooms for curiosity?

That's really the first argument that comes up, and its premise is unfounded. 

To rationally discuss the issue, we need to know a little bit about mushroom biology. 

What is a mushroom?

A mushroom is a sporocarp - an organ for developing and dispersing spores. It is, in actuality, a reproductive organ, analogous to a plant's fruit. 

The organism that produces it is the mycelium, which permeates the substrate and gathers energy from the nutrients therein. This organism is not damaged by picking its fruit.

When conditions are right, and all environmental factors are optimal, that mycelium produces fruits - mushrooms - to allow it to share its genes with the rest of the world. 

Those mushrooms produce spores which are dispersed in a number of ways, most commonly on the wind. 

Each mushroom produces hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of spores - each with the capability to germinate into hyphae, and grow into mycelia of their own, repeating this same cycle elsewhere. 

How does picking its fruit affect the mycelium? 

Realistically, it doesn't - no more than picking an apple, or a handful of berries, affects the tree or bush from which they came.

Mushrooms are fruiting bodies - not the life of the organism.

If we were talking about a plant, there are certainly good reasons to leave it in situ, as pulling up a plant often does end the life of that plant, and removes it from the gene pool.

However, fungi are not plants. They are completely different taxonomic kingdoms, and for good reason.

Without digging up the majority of the mycelium, you're doing no damage by pulling a mushroom out of the soil. The mycelium is unharmed, and may actually benefit (very slightly) from the act. We have over 60 years of empirical data to back these conclusions.

But spores are important for next year's mushrooms!

Yes... and no. 

Spores help to establish mycelia in other locations, and those mycelia may eventually provide fruits of their own; but, existing mycelia persist as long as their environment can accommodate them, and produce fruiting bodies whenever conditions are right. 

Moreover, the chances of anyone picking every single sporocarp produced by a single mycelium are fairly slim, especially when considered on a year-over-year basis. 

Even, however, if a person WERE to pick all of the mushrooms, every year, from a single mycelium, those mushrooms are often producing spores, or have dispersed most of their spores, by the time that you find them. By carrying them around with you, you may actually be helping disperse those spores into wind currents which they would have otherwise missed. 

How about food for the animals?

Very few animals use fungi as a staple food. 

Deer are known to nibble the occasional mushroom, and maybe even a few at a time; but their mainstay is vegetation. 

Turkeys seem to be a scourge when it comes to Morels; but, they are more interested in the larvae and insects within them. 

Squirrels are one of the few mammals that have developed strategies to deal with some mycotoxins. They also display storage behaviour, when it comes to fungi, and I cannot even count the number of Russula and other mushrooms that I have seen hanging in tree branches, or stuffed into cubbies in trees, for later squirrely feasts. That said, however, they still prefer nuts and seeds - which are far more nutritive than fungi. 

However, when we get down to microfauna, the base of the food chain, we see mycophagy as a more important food. Slugs, and a number of insects use mushrooms as food and nurseries. These insects also become food for larger fauna. 

However, we also tend to avoid harvesting insect-infested fungi, for the most part, so their food and nursery sources are probably pretty well covered. Certainly not threatened to the point where their species will die out, or become endangered. 

Unfortunately, I have not been able to uncover any research studies done on the topic of fungi as a contribution to the food web; however, our impact on that contribution is most likely minimal. 

If you find such research, please feel free to share them - primary sources, only, please.

How to harvest for identification

A few important things to consider, when harvesting specimens to identify. 

  • Keep the specimens intact and protected.
    If you carry a number of small paper bags for just such an occasion, this can help keep specimens separated and protected. Use a rigid container, such as a bucket, for transporting quantities of specimens for identification.
  • Gather the entire specimen.
    Carefully excavate the base of the stipe, keeping intact any tissue around that base. This tissue, especially in the case of Amanita species, can be diagnostic in itself, and should not be destroyed or lost.
  • Take notes.
    Note the nearby foliage, type of substrate (is there buried wood in that loam? Mulch? mosses? What species of wood is that growing from?), date, weather, location, terrain, etc. Gather as much information as possible.
  • Take pictures.
    For identification, start with a few images of the mushroom in situ - before you pick it. Follow that with images of all aspects of the mushroom, after excavating it. Be especially sure to capture any tissue at the base of the stipe, the point where the stipe attaches to the pileus and lamellae, annulus (if present), and other features. Cross sections or bruised areas also should be captured as completely as you can.
    Make sure that all images are taken in natural light, and do not adjust the images to make them "prettier" - use them as they came. 


The minimal disadvantages, if any, to picking mushrooms that you do not know, and which may just "go to waste" (i.e., become compost) are far outweighed by the knowledge that can be gained by bringing home those same mushrooms to study and identify. 

If you happened to gather a nice bunch, which turn out to be edible and good, then you also have given yourself the opportunity to try them as food, and see how you like them. 

Maybe you'll have to schedule a return trip to pick more of them, after you have added them to your "known mushrooms" checklist. 

In essence, don't pick-shame folks for collecting mushrooms that they have not yet identified. They are doing no harm to anyone or anything, and they are learning from the experience. 

If you choose not to do the same, then that is your own choice. It may slow your knowledge growth, or it may not, but the choice is yours. Don't attempt to shame others into compliance with your choice, when there is no impact beyond your own sensibilities. 

Happy hunting! 

Wednesday 15 May 2019

The Mesh Bag Morass

Morchella importuna in da hat!
©M. Kilger

"Use a mesh bag, so you spread the seeds, otherwise they won't grow no more!" 

How many hundreds of times, per season, do you see something similar to this come across your Morel/mushroom feeds?

A lot, right?

Because a large number of people feel that it's vitally important that you carry your Morels (and, apparently, other species) in a mesh bag, so that they can "spread spores".

So let's talk about this.

Spores are not seeds

Part of the issue is that many people don't really understand how mushrooms work. 

Mushrooms are not plants, and spores are not seeds. 

Mushrooms are the reproductive bodies of fungi, which are members of the taxonomical kingdom, Fungi (surprising, no?), and are not members of the Plantae kingdom. 

Seeds are a more complex, multicellular structure that nourishes the nascent plant within, while it gestates.

Spores are unicellular structures which, when germinated, become hyphae - the first, filamentous stage of fungal growth. 

As mentioned, mushrooms aren't plants - they do not grow directly from the spores in a 1:1 ratio. They are the fruiting body of a larger organism, made up of hyphae, called a mycelium. 


The genus Morchella is in the family Morchellaceae - the Morels that we so love - which is part of the phylum Ascomycota. 

This is relevant, because it helps to describe the way in which Morchella sporulate - that is, how they distribute their spores. 

Ascomycota produce their spores in groups, within a structure called an ascus. 

Asci are vase-shaped organs, and in Morchellaceae, they are capped with an operculum, which covers the open end. 

As the ascocarp (mushroom) develops and matures, there comes a point where the pressure inside of an ascus exceeds the ambient pressure, and that operculum ruptures, causing the spores to eject from the ascus and catch the wind. 

This action, in many cases, causes adjacent asci to also rupture, resulting in a chain-reaction, referred to as "puffing" (yes, that IS the technical term), releasing clouds of spores at just about the same time. 

Morels, when mature, have already puffed out the vast majority of their spores, by the time that you find them, or during the process of harvesting and brushing them. 

This means that, by the time that they reach your bag, they have dumped more spores than they still hold. 

If you are picking immature mushrooms, they aren't ready to sporulate anyway, so mesh bags won't help spore dispersal at all. 

What does the science say? 

Honestly? Nothing. 

We currently have no data that supports or refutes any human effect on Morchella spore distribution. 

However, given the method by which they disperse their spores, it seems unlikely that there is any statistically significant effect. 

How should I carry my Morels? 

However you like. 

Use whatever method works best for you, whether it is a mesh bag, a bucket, a box, a hat, a shirt, a pillowcase, a backpack, your hands... literally, whatever you like. 

The important thing is protecting them from damage, and allowing them air flow. In a sealed environment, especially in warmer weather, they are prone to bacterial growth and quick decay. Allowing air flow helps prevent this, by allowing moisture to escape. 

Keep in mind, of course, that crawling over, under, and through brush, logs, and other obstacles can crush Morels, when kept in a non-rigid container. Depending on where you hunt, this may be a factor in determining the proper container for your finds. 

However you want to carry them, though, is not going to hurt the population, or their propagation. 

Good luck, and happy hunting! 

Tuesday 14 May 2019

The Root of the Problem - Cutting vs. Pulling

Morchella snyderii
@M. Kilger

As you've probably noticed, if you have been following along, there is a lot of mythology associated with Morel hunting.

Today, let's address one of the more controversial ones:

To Cut, or Not to Cut

That is the question.

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of other Morel hunters, whose mythology dictates that cutting kills the patch, or to take arms against a sea of misinformation and pull those dirty buggers out of the ground.

In reality, there is a considerable quantity of data which indicate that it doesn't matter how you harvest a mushroom.

In 2005, a team or researchers, comprised of Simon Egli; Martina Peter; Christoph Buser; Werner Stahel; and Fran├žois Ayer, published a research paper titled "Mushroom picking does not impair future harvests - results of a long-term study in Switzerland".

The data, on which the paper was built, were gathered over a period of approximately 30 years, and demonstrated that neither cutting, not pulling, mushrooms had a deleterious effect on the production of those same mycelia in the following years.

Concurrently, a study in the United States, in the state of Oregon, was being conducted which studied Cantharellus species (Chanterelles), specifically, and also ran for over 30 years. The Chanterelle Project, headed by Lorelei Norvell, published several papers on their research, including this one.

Incidentally, both studies came to the same, independent, conclusions: The greatest detriment, to the mycelia that provide mushrooms, comes in the form of soil compaction caused by trampling. How you harvest, whether by cutting above the soil, cutting below the soil, cutting at the soil, pulling out of the soil with your hand, pulling with your toes, kicking, biting, or a good golf swing - the organism that provided the mushrooms doesn't really care.

It will continue to produce mushrooms at the rate that its environment will support, until it dies, or no longer has the nutrients to provide the energy for that act.

So, no matter how you like to harvest, you do you - just walk gently, and pick up your trash after you.

Of course, if you ask me, you should ALWAYS cut your Morels at least half an inch above the soil. That way, when I'm walking in the area, I can see where you picked mushrooms, and find the ones that you missed.

As a side note, if you decide that pulling is the easiest method for you, I would highly recommend that you trim off the soil-covered base of the stipe, and then brush your mushroom clean (which you should be doing, in any case) before putting in your basket/bag/bucket/whatever.

This has no bearing on the productivity of the mushroom patch, but it certainly makes for less cleaning later, and can avoid having to soak or wash soil off of them.

Happy hunting!

Half-free morels and Verpa - The Fake False Real False Morels

Left: Morchella populiphila
Right: Verpa bohemica

Today's topic seems to be a bit of a stumper for many, who don't spend a lot of time working with, or identifying a variety of mushrooms: This LOOKS a bit like a Morel, but the cap doesn't meed the stem at the bottom. Is it poisonous?

The answer is, most probably, "No."

You probably have one of 5 species of fungi, on which there seems to be a lot of confusion. So let's work to clear the air.

North America hosts two species of "Half-free Morels", Morchella punctipes, and Morchella populiphila. These are morphologically similar, but easy to tell from the most common Verpa species, Verpa bohemica and Verpa conica.

While they are in the same family, Morchellaceae, they are different genera (Morchella and Verpa, respectively), and have differing characteristics by which they can be recognized.

Both are considered, by many, to be "true" Morels, and both are equally edible. The distinction between Verpa and "Morels" seems to be mostly a North American thing.

Morchella: West side vs. East side

The first difference that I want to address is specific to the Morchella species. 

There are two species of "Half-Free Morel" in North America - Morchella punctipes, and Morchella populiphila.. (Morchella semilibera is not a North American species).

Morphologically, they are pretty much identical, but they differ in location and host tree. In the west side of the country are M. popuphila, which live with Populus spp. (Cottonwoods).

The east has M. punctipes under various hardwoods. 

Verpa: Two species (OK, there are more, but we're focusing here!)

There are two species of Verpa of concern -  Verpa bohemica and Verpa conica. There are other species in this genus, but these are the most commonly found, and the most commonly confused with the aforementioned Morchella. 

V. conica is easy to differentiate from V. bohemica and Morchella, because the "cap" is smooth, without sharp wrinkles.

V. bohemica is the one that is most commonly mistaken for Morchella.

Here are the key morphological differences between the two genera:


  • Morchella - The cap is made of ridged, or netted tissue. It has sharply defined ridges or netting and pits.
  • Verpa bohemica - the cap is comprised of sharply folded tissue. A cross-section will reveal the difference, if you're uncertain by looking at it.
  • Verpa conica: The cap is smooth, without much texture or folded tissue. 


  • Morchella: The stipe is granulose (grainy, with many tiny bumps) in most specimens and generally completely hollow through the attachment to the cap.
  • Verpa: The stipe is smoother and, often, filled with a cottony pith. In older specimens gaps can develop in the pith, giving a hollow impression, but the walls of the cavity are generally quite moist in this case. The stipe may also show some lateral striations, though it does not have the granulose appearance of Morchella. 

Cap attachment:

  • Morchella: The stipe meets up and attaches to the cap part-way down the length of the cap (thus the "half-free" designation). In many cases, especially younger speciment, the attachment point appears constricted within the stipe, giving the appearance of a triangular cavity at the top. 
  • Verpa: In both Verpa species, the stipe only connects to the cap at the apex of the cap, leaving the cap sitting, like a thimble, atop the stipe. 


  • Morchella: Well... they smell like Morels. A similar aroma to the Morel aromas with which you are already (presumably) familiar. 
  • Verpa: The aroma of Verpa is distinctive, and with some experience, a person can tell between the two, using this characteristic, alone. Verpa have an aroma that is reminiscent of chlorine or semen, sometimes also described as slightly metallic. This aroma fades, however, when cooked. 


Both genera are edible, and excellent. Contrary to mythology, both the stipe and the cap of the mushroom are fully edible, and (in my opinion) the Verpa stipe is even more flavorful than the cap. 

Yes, some people have adverse reactions to Verpa... or Morchella. Adverse reactions include gastric distress and nausea. These are more inline with the symptoms of a food intolerance, and can be caused by any species of mushroom (or any other food). 

However, NAMA toxicology records indicate that both should probably be treated as toxic when raw or undercooked. 

There have been a number of reports of neurological symptoms such as loss of coordination, sneezing, numbness, dizziness, and others which have been linked to Morchella spp. (ALL Morchella species - not just the two described in this article), and to a lesser extent, Verpa spp. 

Therefore, be certain to always cook Morchella or Verpa thoroughly before ingesting. 

All of these mushrooms are very enjoyable to find, and eat. This article should help you to differentiate between them. 

Happy hunting! 

Verpa bohemica

Verpa Bohemica - bisected

Verpa bohemica - In some cases, the cap can dry up a bit, and closely resemble the ridges of Morchella, but the stipe is clearly Verpa.

Left:Young specimens of Morchella populiphila, bisected and whole.
Right: Verpa bohemica, bisected and whole

Morchella punctipes
(NOTE: This image came from Midwest American Mycological Information's Web page.) 

Friday 10 May 2019

If It's Hollow, Chew and Swallow: Poor advice

Gyromitra Esculenta, and my li'l rainbow mascot
©M. Kilger

"If it's hollow, chew and swallow!"

We've all heard/seen this old chestnut in some form or another. The idea being that, if it looks similar to a Morel, you should bisect the mushroom, vertically, to verify that it is, in fact, a Morel.

This one, like many of these old adages dealing with mushrooms, is less-than-adequate and can even be dangerous.

What is wrong with it?

To begin with, very few of these sorts of adages hold up to any sort of scrutiny, and are best left as footnotes of amusing old wives tales.

This particular one is problematic because it doesn't use any external characteristics for identification of the mushroom in question. It just states that a hollow mushroom must be good to eat.

This is, in fact, incorrect.

Specifically in the case of Gyromitra esculenta, one of the acutely toxic "false Morel" species, this is a recipe for a bad time.

G. esculenta also has a hollow stipe; however, ingestion of this species can be acutely toxic, without proper preparation.

How SHOULD we distinguish Morels from other genera? 

Morchella spp. all have somewhat similar external morphology.

They all have well-formed, sterile ridges of tissue, that make up the texture of their pilei, and fertile pits between these ridges, in which the spores are produced.

They may have a sinus between the stipe and the "cap" which can extend up to two thirds of the length of the cap, in the case of Morchella populiphila, M. punctipes, and M. semilibera. This does not make them "false", it is just part of their morphology.

They all have more-or-less granulose* stipes, which are generally mostly hollow, though some species may have tissue within the stipe, giving it a chambered appearance. These species can be easily discerned from Gyromitra species with the previously discussed features.

One dichotomous key that can be of use, when in doubt, is at http://www.mushroomexpert.com/morchellaceae

But what about the hollow stem?

Again, a number of different mushrooms have hollow stipes. As far as I can tell, this adage is designed to help discern Morchella punctipes/populiphila from Verpa bohemica.

As Verpa are perfectly edible, when cooked, the use of this one characteristic, to distinguish between the different genera, really only serves to confuse the issue. If your primary focus is food, and you have not experienced any adverse reaction to Verpa spp. or Half-free morels, then there really is no need to be overly concerned about a hollow, or pith-filled stipe. Just enjoy the mushrooms.

See the upcoming entry on Verpa vs. Morchella - The Morel Madness for more information on Verpa bohemica.

*Granulose means covered with small grains or granules. Basically, slightly rough, as if it has sand on it. Almost all Morchella have some granulose texture on their stipe, especially as they age, unless it has been rubbed off. 

Thursday 9 May 2019

Clarification of So-Called "False Morels" - The Greatest Fungal Falsehood

Gyromitra esculenta

Today we're talking about so-called, "false Morels".

Let's start with the fact that "false Morels" really do not exist. This is a common name that is applied to a number of species across several genera, which include Verpa, Gyromitra, and Helvella.

What does that mean, in practical terms?

It means that the term is confusing and is only one step away from using the term "mushroom" to describe a species of fungus.

Let's stop using this disingenuous term, and start calling things what they are.

Helvella are, generally, pretty easy to distinguish from most species of Gyromitra, which are also quite easy to distinguish from Verpa.

Verpa can be more tricky to tell from Morchella punctipes or Morchella populiphila, but the features that separate them are not too difficult to pick up.

So, what is wrong with calling them "false Morels"? 

This term is a detriment to learning, and its use should be stopped. The fewer people that use the term, the faster is will cease to exist.

Beyond the imprecision of the term, it also reinforces, in the mind of the person using it, that there is some sort of connection between the Morchella species which they seek, and these other genera of fungi.

It also implies intent, on the part of the fungi, to deceive us into eating them, by trying to look like Morchella. I would hope that we are all well aware that fungi do not have the faculties to perpetuate such a broad deception, nor would they have impetus to do so.

This is merely humans anthropomorphizing fungi, yet again. Let's stop doing that.

The worst part, however, is that there are two (perhaps three) species of Gyromitra which can be acutely toxic - that means that they can make you very, very ill and cause long-term damage to your body. They may even kill you, if eaten in very large quantity.

How, you may ask, does that have any bearing on why the term "false Morel" should be put to death?

Because it muddies the waters, so to speak, regarding edibility of the other species and genera which are saddled with this misnomer.

Out of the dozens of species to which the term is applied, only two or three are acutely toxic. The rest can be eaten with simple cooking, as you should be doing with Morchella, anyway.

That's right, folks - those mushrooms that you've been given all of this conflicting edibility information about are perfectly edible, with the exception of a few species.

Basically, you've been lied to by well-meaning folks.

About "false Morel" edibility

Let's go it genus by genus.

  • Verpa
    Verpa are edible as Morchella spp., with the same caution: They should be considered toxic unless thoroughly cooked.
  • Helvella
    Not all species of Helvella have noted edibility information, and they do contain small amounts of the toxin monomethylhydrazine (MMH). Yes - the "rocket fuel" component that you've heard so much about.

    MMH is a thermolabile toxin, which can be cooked out, especially in the small quantities which are found in Helvella spp.

    Dehydration can also help decay the MMH, but all Helvella should certainly be cooked after rehydration.
  • Gyromitra
    Gyromitra is the "bad boy" of the Pezizales. These are the real "rocket fuel" mushrooms... or at least a few of them are. They contain a prodrug to MMH, called gyromitrin. That means that the gyromitrin is metabolized into monomethylhydrazine.

    Of all North American taxa in this genus, only Gyromitra esculenta and Gyromitra ambigua contain enough gyromitrin to be acutely toxic.

    While G. esculenta and G. ambigua are still eaten in much of the world, doing so requires a bit of preparation, which includes soaking sliced/chopped mushrooms in a large volume of cold water, bringing that to a boil, dumping the water, and repeating the process. That is a bit more work than many want to put into dinner; but, if you decide to do so, please make sure that you read up on the detoxification process.

    The other species in the genus contain little gyromitrin, and some don't seem to have any at all, including G. caroliniana.

    These species can be eaten with no more preparation than Morchella or Verpa spp. require.

So, why should "false Morels" die?

That imprecision that we discussed earlier makes the whole process of identification a bit of a mess, because so many people have hugely different ideas of that a "false Morel" is, and why they should be scared to eat it.

In truth, for the most part they shouldn't; but, it is difficult to be confident in something when such ambiguous terms are applied to it.

The first step in learning about these wonderful organisms is to be able to identify them, to species (or genus, at least) so that you can quell your fear and accept information on each species.

So, let's stop using "false Morel", and start going with Gyromitra, veneratinge Verpa, and hollering Helvella, instead, so that we can all feel more confident in our discussions and learning about these amazing species of fungi. 

Friday 26 April 2019

Morel Myths Busted

Greetings, Folks!

Being that it's that time of year, and almost all of these myths are being brought up, ad nauseum, here's a little myth busting post to help y'all work it all out.

Myth:  Morels just appear, full-sized and fully formed, out of the ground.

-- Truth: Morels, just like everything else on the planet, start out small and grow to their final size.
Sometimes that size is large. Sometimes it is small. Sometimes they stunt before they reach full size, because environmental conditions are not conducive to much growth. However, they do, in fact, grow from primordia to full-sized mushrooms.
There are plenty of time-lapse videos to show that, and you can test it yourself, if you like.

Myth:  Morels have roots.
-- Truth: Like any other fungus, Morels are part of the Fungi kingdom, not Plantae. They are not plants, and do not have roots.
Roots are an organ specific to vascular plants, that allow water and nutrient uptake.
The organism that produces the mushrooms is a network of hyphae (long, thin strings of tissue) called a mycelium (plural, mycelia). It lives in the substrate in which the fungus grows, in the case of Morels, the soil.
This organism persists long after the mushrooms have been picked, and keeps producing more mushrooms, when conditions are right, for the duration of its life span, which could be decades, or even centuries.

Myth:  Pulling Morels kills the patch, because it takes away the (mythical) roots.
-- Truth: No. As we have already established that Morels have no roots, in the first place, and that the mycelium organism that produces them is persistent, this is patently false.
Beyond that, we have over 60 years of empirical data, from two separate and unrelated studies (The Chanterelle Project - Norvell, et al.; and a Swiss study, the results of which were published in a paper entitled "Mushroom picking does not impair future harvests - Results of a long-term study in Switzerland", Egli, et al.) on this topic.
Both studies, independently, arrived at similar results. Those results show that harvest method has very little impact on future sporocarp production. Whether you pull, pinch, cut, twist, bite, golf-swing, toe-grip, or whatever - you're not harming the mycelia. They will produce as many sporocarps as environmental conditions allow.

Myth:  Morels have deadly look-alikes
-- Truth: While "look-alike" is a fairly subjective term, Gyromitra spp. (that is, species pluralis - and easy way to refer to all species within a genus) really look very little like Morels, and most species are actually quite edible, needing only thorough cooking to mitigate the gyromitrin (hydrazine toxin) within them.
Verpa spp. Verpa spp, on the other hand, CAN look very similar to Morels, and no analyses performed on them has shown any gyromitrin or any other hydrazine toxin. They are as edible as Morchella spp., requiring only thorough cooking.

Myth:  Morels pull back into the ground to escape being picked and at night.
-- Truth: Morels do not shrink back into the ground. It's quite easy to verify this, yourself, by carefully excavating the soil from around the base of the Morel. You'll note that there is no cavity into which it could shrink, and there is no motile tissue in the Morel to facilitate such action. They only get bigger - not smaller.

Myth:  Half-free Morels are not Morels and will make you sick.
-- Truth: Morchella punctipes and Morchella populiphila are two of the three species that are often called, "Half-free" Morels, due to the fact that their cap attaches partway up the cap, leaving a large, overhanging "skirt". (The third species is Morchella semilibera, which is a European species.)
These are often confused with Verpa bohemica; but, are morphologically easy to differentiate. I wrote an entire post on this, and in a Morel group, you can probably search my name to find it. It details how to tell the two genera apart, pretty well, and which characteristics to look for.

Myth:  Morels don't grow - they just dry up.
-- Truth: See the first myth. All things grow. If conditions are not conducive to growth, they may not do so, but under good conditions that one-step-away-from-primordium Morel which you posed next to a dime for size comparison will grow to a full-sized Morel.

Myth:  Morels grow faster because of thunder.
-- Truth: There is no truth to this. Thunder is sound.
That said, however, there is evidence that a lightning strike can, in fact, improve fruiting for many species of mushrooms - Morels being no exception.
A tree that suffered lightning damage stands a good chance of producing a bumper crop. But they really don't care about the thunder that the lightning produced.

Myth:  Morels are not toxic.
-- Truth: Morels may, or may not, be toxic. No toxin has ever been identified in them. HOWEVER, they should always be treated as if they contain a thermolabile neurotoxin, as they have been linked to numerous toxic events, most of which share similar symptoms. Those symptoms include loss of motor control, confusion, sneezing, and profuse sweating, among others.
This indicates that they most probably DO contain some sort of toxin, we just don't know what - and we do know that thorough cooking prevents them from causing toxic symptoms. Verpa should also be considered to carry the same toxin, and treated like Morels before consumption.

Myth:  Morels grow near dead bodies
-- Truth: Well, the might... but that's just coincidence.

Myth:  Mesh bags spread spores and if you don't carry your Morels in mesh bags, you are killing them all.
-- Truth: The truth of the matter is that there are no data that confirm, or refute, any human effect on spore distribution, especially amongst Ascomycetes, such as Morels.
By the time that you pick a mature Morel, it has already released most of its spores. The mechanism by which they produce, and release spores often causes the majority of spores to disperse in a few puffs (yes - the technical term is "puffing") and any disturbance to the sporocarp can trigger puffing.
So, by the time that you have found, cleared, and picked the mushroom, it's released the vast majority of the spores that it contains - if it's mature.
Immature mushrooms do not release spores, as they are not ready to do so. If placed in a dehydrator or similarly dried, they will expel the spores - the environment forces this. Those spores may not be viable, however, and won't grow into any new mycelia.

Myth:  You have to cut them in half to make sure that they are safe. If they are hollow, they are safe.
-- Truth: Not really. The only things that look close enough to a Morel to warrant this sort of invasive technique would be Verpa bohemica, and Phallaceae, such as Phallus hadriani. Both of which are generally easy to distinguish from Morchella spp. based on external morphology.

Myth:  There are only three kinds of Morels - black, grey, and yellow.
-- Truth: In actuality, there are nearly 70 known species of Morels in the world. Around 30 are endemic to North America. They form three sections within the genus: Rufobrunnea, Morchella, and Distantes, with a number of species still unresolved.
So, there are a whole lot more than three.

Myth:  "Grey" Morels.
-- Truth: Thus far, all genetic analysis has shown "grey" Morels to be in the Morchella section - the "yellow" Morels. They mature and yellow out, generally, though some large specimens have been seen to look grey.

Myth:  Morels are mycorrhizal
-- Truth: In fact, we don't know exactly HOW Morels relate to plant species. We know that, at least part of the time, they are saprobes - feeding on the dead tissue of the trees and plants around them. Their affinity for certain species, however, indicates that there is a complex relationship between certain plant species and certain Morchella species. While they have never been shown to form mycorrhizae (a structure that allows the fungi to interact with the plant) on tree roots, there is undoubtedly some connection that we do not, yet, fully understand.

Myth:  Morels have to be soaked in salt water.
-- Truth: Hey, if it floats your boat, go ahead, but insects and dirt can generally be brushed off easily enough. Larvae aren't going to totally vacate - they'll just drown, and you'll be eating dead, brined larvae (tiny bacons). Tiny bacons never hurt anyone, though.
But a long soak in salt water does damage the structure of the mushroom and the flavor and texture are generally better from a brushed, or slightly washed, mushroom than a soaked one.
There is a reason that no chef would buy soaked Morels.

Myth:  All Morels can grow to large size.
-- Truth: While Morchella americana and many other species can grow to very impressive sizes, some other species, such as M. diminutiva only attain a modest size.

Myth:  Cup fungi mean that Morels will be there tomorrow.
-- Truth: Some "cup" fungi to, in fact, inhabit the same areas as Morchella, and fruit before them; however, it's not really a great rule-of-thumb to think that just because you saw Peziza or Urnula species, Morels will follow.

Myth:  "False" Morels will all kill you.
-- Truth: Really this has already been covered, earlier. However, to recap - Gyromitra spp. are generally edible after a thorough cooking process (with the exception of a few species). Verpa spp. are as edible as Morels - again needing a thorough cooking, as do Morels. Helvella spp., if you decide to eat them, should be treated as the edible Gyromitra.

Myth:  Don't eat Morels and drink alcohol.
-- Truth: Morels do not contain any toxins that interact with alcohol, in our experience. While some toxic events that implicated Morchella spp. ALSO involved alcohol, the majority did not, and the symptoms were the same.
The only mushrooms, that we know of, which are contraindicated with alcohol consumption, are those species which contain coprine, such as Coprinopsis atramentaria.

Myth:  Raw Morels are safe to eat.
-- Truth: This is not true. As discussed earlier, Morchella spp., must be presumed toxic when raw, as they are implicated in a large number of toxic events. Always cook Morels. Yes, you might eat one raw and suffer no symptoms, but sola dosis facit venenum (“only the dose makes the poison"), and we do not know the toxins presumed to be in Morels, so have no idea how much is needed to cause symptoms.

I think that about covers all of the Morel myths that I, and some peers that I consulted, could come up with. Please feel free to let me know of any that I've missed!

Check out the False Morels Demystified Facebook group for some good information, or many of the actual mushroom identification/discussion groups there.