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Morel mushroom identification
Know the difference between morels and look-alikes
Make sure you know how to identify any wild mushroom before eating it and do so at your own risk. There are poisonous mushrooms in Michigan.
This page has information on true morels, the Morchella species, and the false morels, species of Verpa and Gyromitra. The false morels are often found at the same times and in many of the same places as the true morels. False morels should be considered poisonous and not eaten.
All species of true morels found in Michigan have one characteristic in common: their caps (heads, tops) are pitted with little hollows, as if holes had been punched partway through them. The pattern of the pits varies from species to species, but all have them. False morel species may be ridged, wrinkled, waved or even quite smooth, but they do not have hole-like pits. True morels are also hollow inside.
All wild mushrooms should be cleaned and well-cooked before consuming.
True morel species
The common morel, often called the white or gray morel. Its color varies from light cream to gray to yellowish-brown depending on habitat and age. The hollow cap is attached to the stalk at base. The common morel is perhaps the easiest of all edible spring mushrooms to recognize, and is therefore widely collected.
The white morel fruits in the latter half of May. It is found in a wide variety of habitats, primarily under hardwoods, including old orchards, beech-maple forests, oak woods, burned-over meadows and occasionally lawns. Occasionally found associated with conifers, especially white pine.
The popular black morel, or eastern black morel. Its color varies from gray in young specimens to almost black in older ones. Its hollow cap is attached to the stalk at the lower edge and can be up to seven inches tall.
Black morels are usually the first true morels to appear in spring, fruiting in early to mid-May under ash, aspen, cherry and occasionally under pines. The crop often peaks when serviceberry bushes are in full bloom.
Warning: Cases of stomach upset have been recorded when this species was eaten in large quantities or consumed with alcoholic beverages.
Commonly called the "half-free" morel because the cap is detached from the stalk about halfway down, resembling a skirt. It is similar in color and general appearance to the white morel but is usually smaller.
The half-free morel fruits abundantly about one year in three on moist humus in oak-hickory and beech-maple forests.
Do not mistake this species for "verpa" species of false morels, whose caps are totally free-hanging.
The burn-site morel may appear in conifer forests the first year after a fire, and more rarely two years after. Its hollow caps are conical or nearly round, and on mature caps, ridges are dark brown to black in color.
Edible - take care to remove any ash residue on the mushrooms.
The DNR MiMorels map tracks the locations of recent prescribed burns and shows potential areas to search for burn-site morels.
Non-edible look-alike species (false morels)
The easiest way to differentiate the false morels (verpa species) from the true morels (morchella) is to check to see if the cap connects to the stalk. Free-hanging varieties should not be eaten.
Often mistaken for the black morel, verpa bohemica appears in late April before trees and shrubs have leafed out. Caps are dark brown and hang completely free of the stalk, like a full skirt. Fruits in rich, moist soils, often along stream banks and swamp edges.
Smaller than bohemica and fruits a few days later. Caps hang free of the stalk. Often grows in forests of mixed conifers and hardwoods, under wild cherry trees and in old apple orchards.
Several species of Gyromitra mushrooms are sometimes found growing with or close to the true morels.
A common problem in Michigan is Gyromitra esculenta, the "beefsteak morel," (shown) which is very abundant in some springs and has been accidentally or purposefully collected and eaten by people. Analysis has shown that this mushroom contains the chemical gyromitrin, which our digestive system converts into monomethylhydrazine, which is both a toxin and carcinogen. Some of the same people who had consumed this species safely for several years have suffered acute poisoning, and a few have died.
The beefsteak morel can be differentiated from a true morel by its solid stem, often brain-like shape and a dark reddish color that develops as it ages.