Wild morel mushrooms (Morchella spp.) are a favorite among chefs and dining connoisseurs who crave the delicious meaty flavor. There are as many as 70 species in the genus, but the ones more commonly gathered in the wild are the black morel (Morchella elata), the common morel (Morchella esculenta), and the late morel (Morchella deliciosa).
Hunting for morel mushrooms in the spring becomes a sort of mythical quest for those who crave 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.
Morel mushrooms, like other fungi, have different cultural needs from traditional vegetables. The visible mushrooms are simply the fruiting bodies of large underground network of mycelium filaments. It can take three to five years from the time you "seed" the soil with spores until a good colony of mushrooms appears. This is why wild patches of morel mushrooms are so highly prized. But once the mycelium is established, it can take as little as six days from the time shoots appear until full-sized mushrooms are ready to harvest. Careful observation is a must.
|Botanical Name||Morchella spp.|
|Common Name||Morel mushrooms|
|Plant Type||Sac fungi (mushroom)|
|Size||2 to 12 inches|
|Soil Type||Well-draining loam|
|Soil pH||Slightly acidic to neutral (6.8 to 7.0)|
|Native Area||Forested areas throughout the Northern hemisphere|
How to Plant Morel Mushrooms
In the classification of living 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. Growing morel mushrooms indoors is nearly impossible for all but experts with access to the strictest laboratory conditions and equipment. To grow morel mushrooms at home, 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.
There are any number of commercial kits available that purport to allow you to grow your own morel mushrooms, each with detailed instructions. But there are also a number of quite successful home formulas that have been developed. The key conditions for growing morels include carefully prepared soil with plenty of decaying wood matter in it (an actual dying tree is ideal), the proper amount of shade and moisture, and a source of morel fungi spores.
One well-known home formula for a spore mixture involves first boiling one gallon of distilled water and adding one tablespoon of molasses and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. The molasses will provide energy for the mushrooms to grow, and the salt will prevent bacteria from growing.
Let the water cool to room temperature, then add in some full shredded morel mushrooms. Let the mixture sit for about two days, then strain it through cheesecloth and collect the liquid, which will contain the microscopic spores. As the mixture sits, you can prepare the soil in the planting area.
To plant the spores, sprinkle the liquid over the prepared soil area. Cover the area with about 1/4 inch of compost and watch daily for the growth of mushrooms. Do not be discouraged if you do not grow mushrooms in the first year. You may get a few mushrooms, but the process of establishing a colony can take several years in most cases.
If you choose to use a commercial morel spore kit, make sure to follow the instructions exactly.
Morel Mushroom Care
Morels grow in the filtered light of forests. They grow under and around deciduous trees such as elm, ash, alder, apple, and oak, frequently appearing before these trees have leafed out. Unlike plants, fungi species such as morel mushrooms do not make chlorophyll. The sun's light plays a role in warming the soil, rather than helping the mushrooms grow.
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 create the loamy soil that morel mushrooms thrive in. Wood chips, wood ash, peat moss, and sand are also desirable soil additives for growing morels. Many homeowners have success in growing morels in the location where a tree stump is located. Or, you can mix in plenty of decaying wood chips from an ash, elm, or oak tree to prepare the soil to nourish the mushrooms.
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 with temperatures of 60 degrees to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and cool evenings in the 40s 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.
Varieties of Morel Mushrooms
The Morchella genus contains several edible mushrooms with similar look, taste, and growing requirements. The black morel (Morchella elata) arrives first on the scene, preferring sites around elm, ash, aspen, or oak 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 vs. False Morels
When growing mushrooms for consumption, proper identification is critical; in fact, your life can depend on it. False morels contain hydrazine compound that decomposes in the body into methyl hydrazine, which can cause liver failure or even death if the mushrooms are eaten raw or are improperly cooked.
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.
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. Store up to one week in the refrigerator between moist paper towels.
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. In a newly "seeded" area, it will take three- to five-years for a network of underground filaments called mycelium form. The mushrooms, which are the fruiting bodies, are the last stage of growth. Once the mycelium has formed, mushrooms will sprout and mature in a matter of just a few days each spring.