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Identifying morel mushrooms is relatively easy, as they have a distinct look and grow at very specific times of the year. However, once you start looking closer, it gets much more complicated. There are actually 12 different types of black morels which vary widely in location, color, size, and ease of identification.
The easiest way to begin the identification process is to separate them by location. If you are on the east coast of North America, there are just 3 types with which to contend. On the west coast, there are many more which makes identification increasingly complicated.
What Does a Black Morel Look Like?
All black morels have some basic characteristics in common. Their caps are conical, elongated, honeycombed, and covered in ridges with deep pits. The cap and stem are hollow which is one of the main identifying characteristics when comparing them against look-a-likes. The bottom of the cap is fused to the stalk and in most cases, the cap is longer than the stem. The stem is generally a lighter color than the cap, usually a sandy yellow or whitish shade. The ridges and pits on black morels all run vertically down the cap.
East Coast Black Morels
There are three types of morels found on the eastern coast of North America.
M.angusticeps is the common, classic, black morel. In most places, it is the only black morel, which makes it easy to identify. The ridges and pits on this morel are oriented almost entirely vertically and the ridges grow darker in maturity. Young morels have tan or brown ridges and they turn dark brown or black as they age. The pits of the young morels are brownish-yellow and remain that way in age, sometimes turning an olive color. The stem is between 2-8 cm tall and 1-3 cm wide. The cap is 3-8 cm high and 2-5 cm wide. This morel grows prolifically east of the Rocky Mountains from March thru May, depending on the climate. It appears near hardwoods, like ash, apple, cherry, and tulip trees.
M.septentrionalis is a black morel that only grows north of the 45th parallel from Michigan to New York. In these areas, it is very difficult to tell this one apart from the M.angusticeps. The main difference is that it is smaller with a cap ranging in size from 3-4.5 cm tall and 1.5-2.5 cm wide and a stem that ranges from 2-3 cm tall and 1-1.5 cm wide. The other possible distinguishing factor is that this morel likes to grow near or in decaying wood, which is an unusual feature for morels. It appears near hardwood trees like ash and big-toothed aspen.
M.punctipes is a type of morel called a half-free morel. It is indistinguishable from another half-free morel, M.populiphila, which grows exclusively on the west coast. Location is the only way to tell these two apart. M.punctipes appears only eastwards of the Great Plains. The cap on a half-free morel is attached to the stem about halfway down causing the cap to hang around the stem. In other morels, the bottom of the cap attaches to the stem. Other than the variation of the cap, this morel looks much like the other two eastern morels, with dark vertical ridges and yellowish brown pits. The stem can be quite long, ranging from 1.5-15 cm tall and 1-4.5 cm wide. The cap is 2-4.5 cm tall and 2-4.5 cm wide. This morel grows under hardwoods.
West Coast Black Morels
The remaining nine types of black morels are all found on the western coast of North America.
M.brunnea is the common, classic, west coast black morel. It looks exactly like the M.angusticeps on the east coast and the only way to determine which is which depends on location. The cap is 3-5 cm tall and 2.5-3.5 cm wide, with vertical ridges that are dark brown or black and pits that are yellowish brown. The stem is 2-5 cm tall and 1.3 cm wide with a somewhat swollen base. It appears under hardwoods, especially oak and Pacific Madrone trees. It has also been found under conifers.
M.importuna gets its name from the fact that it is an opportunistic morel. It differs greatly from other black morels because it doesn’t generally grow under trees. Instead, this morel prefers disturbed ground, like gardens, landscaping sites, and planters. It is also distinguishable because it is very large and stands out, quite literally. The stem can be 3-10 cm tall and 2-6 cm wide and often has a slightly swollen base. The cap is 3-15 cm tall and 2-9 cm wide with deep, vertical ridges and pits. It also has ridges running horizontally across the pits so it looks like a ladder. The ridges are gray or brown when young with pits that match in color. As it ages, the ridges turn dark brown to black and the pits turn yellowish brown.
M.snyderi is a fun morel and quite distinguishable from other black morels. This is because when it is young, the ridges are yellow. Often, this morel is actually mistaken for a yellow morel. As it ages, however, the ridges turn dark brown to black just like with other black morels. It is not uncommon to find M.snyderi half-way through its’ color transition with a cap that is half yellow and half black. The other main distinguishing feature of this morel is its’ pockmarked stem which happens regardless of age. The stem is 3.5-7 cm tall and 2.5-4 cm wide and has a somewhat swollen base. The cap is 3-5.8 cm tall and 3-5 cm wide. This morel grows under conifers like the white fir, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine.
M.frustrata is another morel that is aptly named. It is a black morel that remains yellow for much of its growth. It is a black morel, though, because of its’ vertical ridges and the undeniable DNA analysis. The things that make it frustrating, however, are also what make it easy to identify if one looks closely. The vertically aligned ridges are very different from the common yellow morel which has a random configuration of ridges and pits. The ridges also darken as the mushroom ages which does not happen with yellow morels. The cap on this morel ranges 4-6 cm tall and 2-4.5 cm wide and the stem ranges from 2-4 cm high and 1-2.5 cm wide. The stem is usually highly pockmarked as well. It appears under hardwoods like oak and Pacific Madrone and conifers like white fir, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and sugar pine.
M.populiphila is the west coast version of M.punctipes half-free morel. The cap is attached half-way down the stem, making it different from all other morels in which the bottom of the cap is attached to the stem. This causes the cap to hang around the stem. This morel has a cap that ranges from 2-5 cm tall and 2-5 cm wide and its’ ridges are light brown when young with light brown pits. As it ages, the ridges become dark brown to black and the pits turn yellowish brown. The stem is quite long, 2-11 cm tall and 1-5 cm wide. The base of the stem is usually swollen. M.populiphila appears under black cottonwood in association with riverbeds.
West Coast Burn-Site Black Morels
The last four types of west coast morels are called burn-site morels because they grow exclusively in burned conifer forests. They grow in the Spring following a fire and sometimes for a couple of years afterward as well, however, in fewer and fewer quantities.
M.sextelata and M.septimelata are indistinguishable from each other without DNA analysis. The caps of these two ranges from 2.5-7.5 cm tall and are 2.5 cm wide. The ridges are yellowish-brown when young with yellowish pits. As it matures, the ridges become dark brown to black and the pits become tan or pink. The stems are 2-5 cm tall and 1-2.5 cm wide and have a slightly swollen base. When young, the caps can be an olive-green color, which leads many foragers to refer to these are “greenies” or “pickles”.
M. capitata is strikingly similar to M.sextelata and M.septimelata, the other burn-site morels, however, it does have one feature that sets it apart. The stem of this morel has chambers and layers which the other two types don’t have. Without cutting it open to check, though, it is hard to differentiate. The cap is 4-8 cm tall and is 2.5-8 cm wide with olive or brown ridges and pits when young. As it ages, the ridges turn dark brown to black and the pits turn brownish. These morels are also referred to as “greenies” or “pickles” when they are young. The stem is 2.5-5 cm tall and 2-5 cm wide with a slightly swollen base.
M.tomentosa stands out from other burn-site morels because when it is young, it is covered from stem to cap in dense, fine, hairs. The hairs go away as it ages, however, making it look very much like the other burn-site morels. The cap is 3-11 cm tall and is 2-5 cm wide and as it ages the ridges and pits change from gray or black to tan, dark gray, or sometimes white-ish. Foragers of this morel often call it the gray morel because of this coloring. The stem is 2-6 cm tall and 1-4 cm wide with a swollen base and brown patches of fuzz that still remains.
The identification of black morels can be complicated, however, once you start looking and identifying them, it’ll get easier. Of course, some need a lab for true identification but with this guide, at least you will be able to narrow it down. Regardless, all morels are edible and delicious. So, when you find them, congratulate yourself and have a fine meal!