They grow with blueberries and braken ferns, too

Morel 2006G

It is June 14 and during normal years morel mushrooms should have appeared thirty days ago. But this year has not been normal. We had a long period of warm weather in January and February with a little snow. Then March looked like spring as the weather got warmer but by April there was more snow and rain and sleet and the thaw stalled. In May many things were two or more weeks behind. And the morels? They might not show all this year. But they did. Two days ago I went to the place where I have collected them since the mid-1990’s and found 8 sickly looking morels. Very disappointing.

Morel mushrooms (Morchella) are highly esteemed wild delicacies appearing briefly in the early spring. Like many sought after fungi there is an aura of mystery shrouding them. Morels preferred habitat is one of those mysteries. I was under the impression that morels did not grow on the young glacial soils of my region. They lack a defined profile of deep, rich loam forested with hardwood trees species such as elms, especially dead elms and ash. Our soils are gravelly, sandy, acidic, and leached by centuries of tannins and resins from conifer forests and with very little rich humus. So morels just shouldn’t grow here except on a few very special sites colonized by hardwood trees. It turns out that the genus Morchella contains many species and that not all of them are restricted to rich loamy soils under hardwood trees.

About 15 years ago while searching a wild blueberry patch for rare species of moonworts and grapeferns (Botrychium) I found what looked like a morel mushroom. After a few minutes of looking I counted over 100 of these fungi in a small area. I was amazed that morels were growing here. Their presence and abundance went completely against everything I thought I knew about them. There are no elms, live or dead, no ash trees, no deciduous hardwoods other than a few quaking aspen. The dominant vegetation is blueberry, bracken fern, various grasses such as poverty oats (Danthonia spicata) and false melic (Schizachne purpurea) and small upland sedge species like Carex communis and C. backii. Other trees besides the aspen are white spruce and balsam fir. The soil is a very infertile and acidic glacial outwash.

These fungi were a different species, though, one I had not seen before. They might be morels but I was not completely sure. The cap was honeycombed but came to a sharper point than the famous Morchella esculenta. The margins of the ridges around each opening were thin and black, something I had not seen in M. esculenta. The cap was darker, too. But it was not a Gyrotmitra or false morel which, to me, looks like a brown brain. After checking various books on fungi and trusted mushroom hunters it was determined that these fungi were true morels and that the species was Morchella angusticeps. Apparently, this species was a new one for my mushroom hunting friends, too. Like me, they had been looking for morels in the typical rich deciduous hardwood habitat and never considered blueberry patches.

Every May now I check this wild blueberry patch. Some years there are many morels but in others there are just a few. I was hoping that this spring the harvest would be good but this year that is not the case. That’s ok though. There are other mycological delicacies in the woods that will be presenting themselves over the summer. Maybe they will be in abundance or maybe not but they will be there just the same and I will be able to appreciate them.

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