Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

Spring brings the best of the edible mushrooms, the morels, popping up out of the ground at various locations in southern Oregon and northern California. If you ask people where to look for morels, they will be evasive, worse than fishermen. Early in the season look for morels at lower elevations growing under shrubs, including poison oak, in areas that have burned in the not too distant past. Later move to higher elevations in the Cascades and follow the receding snow line.

Morels are members of the group of fungi mycologists call Ascomycetes, the sac fungi, because their reproductive spores are produced in tiny sacs. Most of our other mushrooms are Basidiomycetes, the club fungi, with spores produced on microscopic structures called basidia. The morels are among the safest of all fungi. Their distinctive hollow fruiting body and cap honeycombed with raised ridges and deep pits or chambers on the surface make them easy to identify. They look like sponges poking up through the duff. At first they are difficult to find. You look and look and find nothing. Once you find one and establish a search pattern, you may see them everywhere.

A mushroom that you might confuse with the morel is the brain mushroom or false morel in the genus Gyromitra. Its species, also Ascomycetes, have contorted, lobed or wrinkled brain-like caps that lack the hollow caps and sharp ridged pits of the morels. Brain mushrooms are very poisonous. They contain monomethylhydrazine, MMH, the exact same chemical as rocket fuel. Believe me, if you consume MMH, you too will end up in outer space. In Europe, it is the second greatest cause of fatal mushroom poisoning after Amanita. MMH is volatile and can be boiled off in cooking. Breathe the vapors and you are in trouble, leave on the lid and the vapors stay in the pot. My advice to you is stay away from Gyromitra species.

If you are still interested in the true morel try looking in the woods of the Dead Indian plateau or in the vicinity of Lake of the Woods. My spring systematic botany class often returned from our field trip to the Dead Indian Plateau with bags bulging with plump morels. I am ashamed to say that I am often able to convince my students that teacher should be the recipient of such treasures. Who wants apples when morels are around?

If there is a moral to this story, I haven’t found it yet.

— Dr. Frank Lang   

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