BLOG: Forage & Feast March

5 March 2021

This month, Dave Winnard, from Discover the Wild, discusses what to look out for in March as we head into Spring! The three species included in this blog are The Morel, ‘Woodchip’ Morel and the False Morel.

At this time of year, the hunt for some of the most mythical species in the fungi world begins. Whilst Spring produces a smaller amount of fungi, one group sends wildlife enthusiasts and foragers mad in search of them, the Morels.This month I shall help guide you to find some for yourself.

The Morels (Morchella), are a complex group of species, but we are going to focus on the ‘commoner’ ones, including the False Morel, so you know which to avoid. The three species below can all be found in March and April and, in areas with the right conditions, Morels can be abundant. The thrill of the hunt for them is fun enough to give it a go even if you don’t fancy eating them. If you are going to eat some of the edible species, ensure you cook them first and DO NOT eat them raw.

As always, if you are going to eat any plant or fungi from the wild then make sure YOU know 100% YOU know what it is.

The Morel (Morchella esculenta)

Although widely eaten in mainland Europe, in the UK it can be harder to come across. Once you know what kind of habitat it is found in, the hunt is much easier. In 20 years of searching in Rochdale I have never found this species, as the habitat is just not right. I have seen it on numerous occasions, however, in southern Manchester, Lancashire and North Wales.

True Morels are distinctive in their mushroom shape, but they do not have gills. The cap is round and made up of a ‘honeycomb’ like structure, which is the important difference between this species and the False Morel. The colour of cap can vary: usually a yellow, beige, orangey colour, or grey colour. Some authors split them into different species or sub-species depending on the colour, but this is a grey area.

Often referred to as the Common Morel (Morchella vulgaris), these types of Morchella esculenta are edible and delicious. They have a very different texture to a mushroom (probably because they aren’t true mushrooms).

Common Morels like light sandy soil, usually on a bit of a slope. In wooded areas, I look on limestone or neutral soil, near to Ash trees, with Violets and even Dog’s Mercury nearby. It sounds pretty specific, but it seems to be what they really like. They are also found on dune slacks at the coast - but these are unique habitats and I would discourage foraging on them when many are under threat!

‘Woodchip Morel’ (Morchella importuna)

The Woodchip Morel is not its true name, but it’s what I call it, known as such because it’s becoming commoner on wood chip in parks and gardens, including in urban areas like supermarket car parks! Whereas The Morel is the stuff of legends, this species doesn’tt need much skill to find, just keep checking wood chip areas in Spring.

Smaller than The Morel, the Woodchip Morel is usually dark brown-grey in colour, with an elongated shape (though there is always lots of variation). The cap shares the same honey-comb like structure. The pale stem is usually slightly swollen at the base, and like the species above, it’s hollow.

In my opinion, these are not as good as The Morel, but people come across them much more easily. Due to the fact that they often grow in gardens on our mulched beds, make sure no chemicals have been used on them before eating!

False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta)

You cannot discuss hunting for Morels without mentioning the False Morel, which, as the name suggests, isn’t a true morel. It has been mistaken for the real deal, so you need to be aware of what to look out for to enjoy the thrill of finding it, just do not eat it.

Generally, the False Morel prefers more acidic soils, I often find them in coastal coniferous and inland plantations. It is important to mention that it can be found on woodchip and in gardens, so be extra careful when searching for the ‘Woodchip Morel’, as they share the same habitat.

The size and shape is similar to The Morel, but it lacks the honeycomb structure. Instead, the cap resembles a brain, with lots of folds, but certainly not a honeycomb. The cap is usually a browny-red, but it can be darker when it starts to dry out. The stem is slightly more grooved and often becomes hollow in chambers, rather than throughout.

It is deadly poisonous raw, and whilst some people have confused it with The Morel, if you take care and look for all the features you will be fine. Always consult a good field guide to help you.

There are more ‘Morel’ species, as well as the two mentioned above. There is another inedible Morel- the Semifree Morel (Morchella semilibera). This Morel gets it name from its cap, which is relatively small in comparison to the size of the fungus. Only half of the cap is joined to the stem, whereas The Morels cap is joined to the stem completely. A cross-section of the fungus will make this clear to see. The Black Morel (Morchella elata) is another species, more conical in shape rather than rounded like the rest, and the fungus is generally very dark.

The Morel is perhaps one of the holy grails in fungi foraging, sometimes mythical even, but I urge everyone to have a go at looking for them. It is finding the right habitat which can take time, but when you do hunt them down, Morels can be abundant.

Next month we will look at a few plants and one mushroom as we march into April. As always enjoy your foraging wherever you go and only ever pick something that you are 100% on what it is.