Hunting for morel mushrooms in the spring becomes a sort of mythical quest for those who crave the meaty flavor of these forest dwellers. The netted brown caps of the low-growing fungi are perfectly camouflaged in their woodland habitat, blending in with the leaf litter and decaying wood that nourishes morels from one season to the next. You don't need to have access to large tracts of forestland to enjoy morel mushrooms if you grow them at home.
- Botanical Name: Morchella spp.
- Common Name: Morel mushroom
- Plant Type: Fungi
- Mature Size: Two to 12 inches
- Sun Exposure: Shade
- Soil Type: Loamy and well-draining
- Soil pH: Slightly acidic to neutral; 6.8-7.0
- Hardiness Zones: USDA growing zones 4-9
- Native Area: Forested areas throughout the Northern hemisphere
Caring for Morel Mushrooms
In the classification of organisms, morel mushrooms fall under the Fungi kingdom, not the Plantae kingdom. Mushrooms don't have roots, and don't produce seeds. In some ways, they are as different from plants as they are from animals.
If your search for an indoor morel mushroom growing kit has come up empty, don't despair: Growing morel mushrooms indoors is nearly impossible for all but experts with access to the strictest laboratory conditions and equipment. To grow morel mushrooms, you must try to replicate their favorable growing conditions outdoors. If you don't experience success one season, try again, as morels have an unpredictable growing habit.
Morels grow in the filtered light of forests. They grow under and around deciduous trees like elm, ash, and oak; frequently appearing before these trees have leafed out. Unlike plants, fungi like morel mushrooms do not make chlorophyll. The sun's light plays a role in warming the soil, rather than helping mushroom growth.
It's no coincidence that groups of morel mushrooms grow around dead, decaying, and burned trees. the nutrients released by dying trees and the leaf litter of the forest creates the loamy soil that morel mushrooms thrive in. Wood chips, wood ash, and sand are also desirable soil additives for growing morels.
Regular moisture is very important to a morel mushroom's growth. Your morel growing area should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Watering with captured rainwater is preferred to chlorinated tap water.
Temperature and Humidity
Morel mushrooms grow best in cool, moist weather. The quintessential spring weather of mild days in the 60's and cool evenings in the 40's with scattered rain and cloudy days will extend the morel growing and harvesting season. Conversely, when the season is dry and hot, morels quickly wither away.
Propagating Morel Mushrooms
Each morel mushroom contains hundreds of thousands of microscopic spores capable of growing a new mushroom. In nature these spores travel by air, but to cultivate morels in a desired area you must capture them in a slurry. Soak a freshly picked morel in a bucket of distilled water overnight. Broadcast this slurry around an area you have previously found morels growing, or around the base of mature or dead ash, elm, oak, or apple trees. This is when the three to five year period of nutrient gathering begins. During this time underground filaments called mycelium form. The mushroom, which is the fruiting body, is the last stage of growth.
Varieties of Morel Mushrooms
The Morchella genus contains a few edible mushrooms with similar looks, taste, and growing requirements. The black morel (Morchella elata) arrives first on the scene, preferring sites around ash trees where it grows in large colonies. A couple of weeks later the common morels (Morchella esculenta) sprout, growing singly or in small groups. Late morels (Morchella deliciosa) are the last pick of the season, but their small size and infrequent number are a disappointment to those who appreciate its fine flavor.
Morel mushrooms don't need to reach a certain size to achieve ripeness. Older mushrooms are just as tasty as young specimens, but the longer they grow the greater the chance that weather or animal damage will occur. Harvest morels by cutting or pinching them off at ground level. This will reduce the amount of dirt in your harvest. Place in a mesh bag to allow spores to return to the soil. Store up to one week in the refrigerator between moist paper towels.
Morel Mushrooms vs. False Morel Mushrooms
When growing mushrooms for consumption, proper identification is critical; in fact, your life can depend on it. Morel mushrooms have a distinctive appearance, but false morel mushrooms (which encompass multiple species, including Gyromitra) can fool the untrained eye. True morel mushrooms have a uniformly shaped cap that is attached to the stem, and a hollow interior. False morel mushrooms have a wavy or irregular cap that may hang free from the stem, and web-like or cottony fibers inside. Never eat a mushroom unless you are confident in its identification.