April 17, 2023
Ladies and gentlemen, we got em. After receiving the pictures from Central Park last week I figured we were on the precipice of seeing morels pop up here in Putnam County. Although it was hot and dry this past week, on Friday I found the same “cup morel” (Disciotis venosa maybe) up in Manitou that I found last year – this time eleven days earlier than in 2022. This finding and the pictures from last week gave me the inkling that morels would be popping up as well – I just had to find em.
After work on Friday Ciara and I went to a preserve we’d unsuccessfully hunted for morels last year. Not only is there an old apple orchard, but the whole preserve is wetlands with dead/dying ashes and tulip trees. As we’ll see, it checks a lot of boxes for morel habitat. However, there were still no morels. “Oh well, it’s still early, and there hasn’t been any rain” I told myself as I once more fought back feelings of self-doubt and defeat.
Turn the page to Saturday where I called off the hunt to instead help erect an osprey tower with the Stamford Land Conservation Trust. In the midst of this operation I received a few pictures and a great many more exclamation points from Ciara. She had unintentionally stumbled upon morels as she was walking through Bear Mountain State Park with a friend. Envious, as this was the first morel encounter for either of us, I had her lead me to the very spot when I got home that evening.
You can scour maps, search out the perfect habitat, try to time it right with the rain, but sometimes the mushrooms are just going to pop up out of the asphalt run off on the side of the path. Identifying morels to the species is difficult, and after some discussion with the New York Mycological Society we think these might be Morchella diminutiva. The early time of year, association with a nearby tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), and aspects of the physical stature led us to this identification.
If you aren’t familiar with morels (genus Morchella), they’re a highly coveted edible mushroom and as you’ve probably noticed one of the most recognizable too. Before you go searching on your own you should know that there are also false morels (Gyromitra) that are toxic when cooked because they emit a compound that is also found in jet fuel. Okay now you can go searching. Both morels and false morelsare ascomycetes which means they develop their spores internally in an ascus and eject them out into the world.
We found six morels that ranged in size from a pinky fingernail up to an egg. They had an earthy, umami, marrow-like odor. It took me a few minutes to place it but I realized they smelled exactly like the bones we’d give our dog growing up (RIP Juanita). With that strong aroma you understand why people dehydrate them and use them for broths if they have the discipline not to eat them fresh.
The rule of thumb in the area is that black morels (M. angusticeps) – the species of morel found in Central Park last week – usually show up a couple weeks before yellow morels (M. americana). However, M. diminutiva has been known to fruit even earlier than black morels which fits here as it’s still fairly early in the season (you can typically find morels from mid-April to mid-May). One thing that can be said about this particular situation is that the asphalt cinders definitely absorb sunlight and heat the soil underneath much more than leaf litter or even bare soil.
There are a variety of species and subspecies in the area and the more I research them the more confusing it gets. That goes for the trees they associate with as well which basically spans all species of hardwoods and some conifers – including even eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana). Some species like woodchips or even disturbed waste areas like the gravel next to a parking lot. Out in western North America they will grow the spring after a substantial wildfire and the thinking is they now need to find living trees to continue their mycorrhizal relationship. It seems like morels can be both mycorrhizal and/or saprobic (depending on environmental conditions), and this flexibility allows them to grow on every continent aside from Antarctica.
Locally, it sounds like black morels are found with black cherry (Prunus serotina) in NYC, but can still associate with almost all hardwoods. Large flushes have been found around old and/or dying elms. Apple orchards are a hotspot too but be careful of any residual arsenic in the soil from when the harmful chemical was used as a pesticide. Further, morels seem to favor alkaline soil (pH above 7) so the east side of the Hudson river, which boasts more limestone, might be a better place to search than the west side of the river.
A comprehensive study of morel fruiting behavior was conducted over a span of nearly fifteen years by Dr. Jeanne Mihail from the University of Missouri. The research suggests that the “accumulated average soil temperature above freezing” in the twenty days prior to fruiting is the biggest indicator for yellow morel appearances (Reference 3), but that the growth of these morels can be delayed after a mild winter – like the one we just experienced. Another interesting note was that the largest flushes (the most mushrooms) were concentrated within 5-7 days which was the shortest period of growth throughout the recorded years. It also appeared that precipitation within the previous thirty days influenced the quantity of morels and we’ve had a dry spring relative to average unfortunately.
The more I read the fewer the certainties were and the greater my admiration swelled for how these popular mushrooms have maintained their mystery. It seems like the best way to learn about them is to go and find them. I’m hoping to find some black morels (M. angusticeps) so hopefully those will get a feature in one of the next few editions of MM.
PS. I pulled four, count em four, deer ticks off me today. Like mushrooms, they also love precipitation. Always check yourself to avoid having those little buggers wreck yourself.
- Kuo, M. (2012, November). Morchella diminutiva. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/morchella_diminutiva.html
- Mihail JD, Bruhn JN, Bonello P. Spatial and temporal patterns of morel fruiting. Mycol Res. 2007 Mar;111(Pt 3):339-46. doi: 10.1016/j.mycres.2007.01.007. Epub 2007 Jan 23. PMID: 17363234.