The Wild Morels

No contender comes close to this king of wild mushrooms.

Morels are Missourians' favorite mushroom for good reason. They are delicious to eat, easy to identify and can be hunted during five fabulous weeks in spring. Best of all, you can find them in every county.

At least four different species of morels are found in Missouri. Although there are dozens of local names for each, they are most commonly referred to as black, half-free, common and late morels. The early "red mushroom" is a false morel and cannot be classified with the true morels. The false morels are in the Lorchel family and differ in size, color, shape and spore characteristics.

As is the case with most fungi, the morel mushroom that you see is the fruiting body of an organism that has a complicated life cycle. It is not like a plant with roots, so it cannot be expected to grow like one. It emerges from a complex "mat layer" that develops in the top soil layers. The fruiting body (mushroom) must mature and release spores to complete its life cycle.

Because of wide variations, size is the least dependable trait to identify the different morel species. Morels almost always increase in size as they age, but their growth depends on the moisture, temperature and fertility of the soil.

During their growth period, morels also change color, the shape of their stalk and cap, and the size and shape of their pits. Therefore, it is difficult to distinguish one morel species from another until you learn to recognize the difference between young and mature specimens of the same species.

The Season

April is usually the peak of morel season in southern Missouri, but there's no accurate way to predict its beginning or end. Generally, the season lasts four to six weeks. The exact length depends on the weather and the species of morel. Hot, dry weather quickly ends the season, while cool, moist weather can prolong it to mid-May.

Morels' emergence and development depend on soil temperature, and patterns vary from year to year. When weather causes a sudden increase in soil temperatures, morels can appear overnight. Warm rains, an unusually hot day or two or a few very warm nights can often trigger their emergence, too.

In years when soil temperatures warm slowly, the first morels are late, scattered and slow to develop.

If you start with black morels and end with late morels, you can extend your