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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Morel of the Story

Mycology, or the study of fungi, used to be considered a branch of botany rather than biology, until it was recognized that fungi are most closely related to animals than to plants.  Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of certain fungi, and while fewer than one thousand species have been identified in the state of Texas, it is estimated that as many as eight to ten thousand species remain to be identified!  Often associated with molds, mildews, and yeasts, several mushroom species are edible, and the most avidly hunted of all wild mushrooms is the Common Morel (Morchella esculenta).

The cap of the Common Morel is sponge-like, yellowish gray to tan in color, oval to mildly elongated, and has a mottled, pitted surface.  Its stalk is white, hollow, and has a slightly rubbery texture.  This species is most commonly found in our state growing in the limestone soils of Central Texas, but it has also been found in the acidic soils of East Texas and in parts of the Big Bend country.  It can be seen singly or in small groups on the ground under oaks and junipers, often along creek beds.  Its species name, esculenta, means ‘good to eat’, and morels regularly appear on the menus of some the best restaurants. 

Although a process to grow these mushrooms under controlled conditions was reported years ago, attempts to commercially cultivate them have been far from successful.  Laboratory studies have shown that common morels hold several medicinal properties, including immune system regulation, anti-tumor effects, fatigue resistance, and anti-viral properties.  This species has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat indigestion and shortness of breath, and is even listed in the National Register of Medicinal Plants in the country of Nepal.  

Several similar species of morels are recognized in Texas, but the Common Morel is known by various colorful names, including yellow morel, sponge morel, Molly Moocher, haystack, and dryland fish.  Members of this species can vary in size, color, as well as the shape of the cap.  When cut down the center, the ‘true morels’ reveal a hollow stalk, unlike a ‘false morel’ that looks similar but the interior of its thick, white stalk is deeply furrowed or folded and not at all hollow.  Care must be taken to properly distinguish between the two, as the False Morel (Gyromitra caroliniana) is toxic to humans.

Mushrooms can be very photogenic and make for yet another reason for the whole family to walk new or familiar trails and see what earthy treasures can be found.  While morels normally occur in the spring, they can appear after any unusual period of cool, rainy weather. And that’s the morel of the story!