In search of morels

Morels are somewhat of a holy grail for fungi enthusiasts and foraging chefs. Fruits of the Morchella genus are nutritious, delicious (so we’re told) and incredibly hard to find, making them one of the most desired mushrooms in the world.

In the UK, eight types of  true morels are recognised.  Of these, only three have been found in Scotland. Below, avid mycologist and wild food entrepreneur, Dick Peebles, gives a personal account of his search for this prized spring fungi. Today’s post comes courtesy of our friends at Scottish Fungi.

Morchella esculenta. © Malcolm Storey, 2010,

Morchella esculenta © Malcolm Storey

I can certainly remember the first time I ever found Morels. For me they had been a target species for several years, and I had spent many long spring days seeking them in vain. The attraction was twofold: firstly I wanted to see a beautiful large ascomycete in its natural environment in Scotland, and as the years went by I became increasingly convinced that it was very rare or possibly even absent in this country, presenting a challenge which fuelled my growing obsession. Secondly, it was by all accounts a very special culinary delicacy and I would be fibbing if I claimed that hunting for the pot was not a major motivation in my early foraying days. The fact that Morels turned up early in the year when there were few other fungi about added to the attraction; it would certainly make an excellent alternative to the abundant St. Georges Mushroom.

Morchella elata in garden gravel

Morchella elata in garden gravel, (C) David Genney

Every Winter I would study my field guides planning the next Spring offensive. Sadly, however, all those books were written in England by English people for English people exploring English terrain, so I was sent down many a cul-de-sac with the advice that orchards were particularly fruitful hunting grounds and that plenty of ivy on the ground was a good thing. Fortunately there are not many orchards in Scotland or I would undoubtedly have wasted even more time, but the single greatest time-sump inflicted upon me by the field guides was the idea that disused railway lines were a sure-fire bet. This may be so in some parts of our island, but the books might at least have included a caveat that there are long, punishing miles of barren trudging to be endured on the greater part of the old network. There is no shortage of dismantled railway in Scotland, and I spent many days on my futile quest for the elusive Morel. I might have given up altogether had not a friend told me that he had succeeded in locating them twice in Scotland; once in Clydebank, and the other time at Murrayfield in Edinburgh. His finds were on waste ground and a building site respectively. Once again the field guides had done me a disservice, for every one of those alluring photographs where the mushrooms were captured in situ depicted a woodland or hedgerow environment which implied some sort of obligate association with woody plants. Now that this illusion was exposed I was back to square one.

Morchella elata/conica growing in shell sand on the Invernaver Site of Special Scientific Interest, Sutherland. © David Genney, 2006.

Morchella elata/conica growing in shell sand on the Invernaver SSSI, Sutherland. © David Genney

My books never failed to remind me that in North America and continental Europe Morel fruiting was invariably heavy in the aftermath of a forest fire. Stopping short of actually torching a forest to see if this was true, I did nevertheless adopt a policy of thoroughly investigating bonfire sites wherever I encountered them. Once again, nada.

Almost inevitably my first success was entirely accidental. It came on 18th May, 1996, at Luffness Links near Aberlady in East Lothian. The day was glorious; the little skylark was singing his heart out, a tiny fluttering speck in an azure sky, and every now and then a passing bee would make the air vibrate. I was contentedly gathering in the groceries, on this day the usual St. Georges Mushrooms as well as an early flush of Fairy-ring Champignons, little suspecting that an unforgettable Shangri-la moment was approaching. As the troops of St. Georges Mushrooms pulled me in the direction of the adjacent golf course I noticed something unusual on a nearby tee. It couldn’t be, could it? But yes… there they were… Morels! Or, more precisely, pieces of Morel-shrapnel. They had obviously proved irresistible for a few practice swings for someone who had not spent weeks tramping along old railway lines in their pursuit. Nearby, however, on the slope of the tee, growing straight out of the sandy turf was a pair of tiny thimbles, saved from the golfers by their near-invisibility – the first Morels I had ever seen in their natural environment! Of all the top-drawer esculent fungi I have sought to track down over the years the Horn of Plenty alone has afforded me more difficulty than the Morel.

Morchella vulgaris. © Malcolm Storey, 2013, (as M.conica)

Morchella vulgaris © Malcolm Storey

Within a week of my serendipitous discovery I met with a pair of excited chefs from the nearby Greywalls Hotel who showed me a collection they had obtained from the Muirfield Links, including a couple of magnificent specimens each the size of a pint jug. Eager to cash in on this bonanza I scheduled a revisit to East Lothian for the following weekend, this time targeting the coastal links at Yellowcraigs. For once ignoring the St. Georges Mushrooms, and freed forever from the misconception that the Morel was a woodland species, it didn’t take long to locate them on this occasion. Once again the substrate was sandy turf, just behind the dunes. The sand was a grey colour, and close inspection revealed that a major component of it consisted of tiny fragments of sea-shells crushed by centuries of erosion – all that Calcium carbonate induced in me the concept that the Morel might well be calciphilous. I didn’t find any pint jugs that day, but I did find an example the size of a coffee mug which was subsequently sold to a happy German chef at his hotel near Dunfermline. Apparently it was stuffed with a truffled chicken mousse and carved at the table as a hors d’ouvre for some lucky special guests who were resident at the time.

Over the next couple of years I continued to monitor the coastal grasslands in the hope of a mega-flush, but fruiting was sporadic and the calculation that I was finding one Morel for every four miles of walking suggested that the species wasn’t making a significant contribution to the mortgage repayments which led to a rapid re-instatement of Calocybe gambosa as the Spring staple.

Morchella elata, (C) David Genney

Morchella elata, (C) David Genney

At around this time it was rumoured that mushroom hunters down south had hit upon a way of harvesting Morels with some efficiency. Apparently they would discover where new supermarkets were being built, then visit the site the following Spring and presto! – paydirt. It was suggested that the mass-fruitings were connected with the lime being used in the fresh cement – which I was inclined to believe after my Yellowcraigs observation. One friend in London told me he had actually seen Morels growing straight out of a bag of unused chalk – the powder had weathered into a solid rock and the fungi were presumably consuming the paper sack that contained it.

The suggestion that a high pH was essential for Morel fruiting had just begun to seem incontestable when, all at once, records began to pour in from all over Scotland, the first from Aberfeldy, then one from Lossiemouth, the next from Peebles…and all from private gardens or public parks! It seemed inevitable that some of these must have been from acid soils. One constant emerged, however. In all cases the ground had been covered with wood chips in the preceding months. Possessed of a new enthusiasm for the wood chip habitat, I soon made discoveries of my own at Jesmond in Newcastle-upon-Tyne then at Armley in Leeds. Perhaps woodchips, rather than lime, were the ingredient which had provided the southern lads with their successful harvests from the new supermarkets, as such premises nearly always feature ornamental plantings around their car-parks in beds covered with chipped wood or bark. In more recent times a friend on Skye asked me if there was any chance he might find Morels on the island. I told him that they had never been recorded on Skye before, but if he could find a place where woodchips had recently been laid down then he might stand a chance. I next spoke to him a week later, and he thanked me for the tip. Apparently fresh woodchips had been scattered around the children’s swingpark area in Dunvegan Village the previous Summer, and his visit had yielded him almost a kilo of the delicacy!

Morchella elata, (C) David Genney

Morchella elata, (C) David Genney

As time progressed from the early woodchip finds the annual fruiting pattern emerged; the first Spring would see a bumper harvest, there might be a few scattered ascocarps in year two but by year three whichever muse controls Morel fruiting would be sound asleep never to wake, perhaps, until new wood chips are applied. The woodchip fruiting phenomenon poses many fascinating questions, and I have heard various theories about what might be going on. Some suggest that the Morchella spores or mycelium are being introduced into the soil by the chips while others venture the possibility that the spores or mycelium are ubiquitous and that the chips merely act as some sort of casing which provokes the indigenous fungus into fruiting. I guess if anyone really knew the answer they would be growing them commercially all year round and making a fortune!

Interesting and exciting though woodchip Morels are, there is something vaguely hollow and artificial about the phenomenon that is unsatisfying from the perspective of the mycological recorder. Could it be that there was no genuinely natural Morel environment left in Scotland, save for a few coastal strips? The answer was shouted at me by our botanical forefathers through the centuries, but for a long time I was deaf to their wisdom.

Morchella elata, (C) David Genney

Morchella elata, (C) David Genney

Over the years I have become increasingly fascinated by the history of Scottish mycology, and during the course of perusing old publications such as localised Flora and the ancient transactions of various natural history societies it has become apparent that Morels were more frequently encountered in a truly natural environment prior to the 20th century. The earliest records found so far come from John Lightfoot, who led a botanical exploration of Scotland in 1772 which would lead to the publication of his Flora Scotica three years later. As he travelled north during the month of May he encountered Morels at no fewer than three locations, the first near Langholm in the Borders, then at Dalkeith in the Lothians and finally at Blair Athol. Next in on the act was Glasgow botanist Thomas Hopkirk who had found them “in sandy fields at Mount Vernon” by 1813. In April of 1834 George Johnston described them as “occurring abundantly” at Abbey St. Bathans in East Lothian. By the 1870’s records were being amassed from a widespread area, particularly in the Border counties where Archibald Jerdon and his pals recorded them from no fewer than six locations spread over several miles in a single weekend! Then, before the turn of the century, there was a sudden drop in the numbers of observations of Morels, and as the 20th Century progressed there were virtually no reports for several decades. I presumed that the species had declined and imagined a number of factors that might have contributed to this, including change of land use, destruction of paddocks as horses were replaced by mechanisation, use of pesticides and fertilisers, and general pollution. It was not until 2011 that the penny finally dropped following a Spring foray led by Graeme Walker, leader of the Clyde and Argyll Fungus Group. It was a most illuminating day, by the end of which I had become inclined to believe that the Morel had not declined at all!

Graeme was raised in Blantyre, a few yards from where David Livingstone was born and also just a few yards from the River Clyde, and in his youth the budding natural historian had enthusiastically explored both banks of the river near his home. No plant, mammal, bird, insect, amphibian, reptile or fish went unnoticed by the young Walker, but, fortunately for us, it was the fungi that would ultimately capture his greatest devotion. As his experience grew he not only learned that Morels could be found on his riverbanks, but that they most frequently occurred immediately above the high flood mark together with – and this is most exciting – the other Spring-fruiting genera of macro-ascomycetes: Mitrophora, Verpa, Gyromitra and Disciotis! We didn’t find any of the large Ascos on that particular foray two years ago but as Graeme pointed out site after site where he had found them in the past I certainly knew why I hadn’t found them in this environment before – it rubbed against all my Autumn-honed instincts for suitable toadstool hunting ground! Who would imagine looking for fungi in small, sandy clearings surrounded by dense riparian vegetation? Those two words, “riparian” and “vegetation” would prove significant upon further rumination of the subject.

Morchella elata, (C) David Genney

Morchella elata, (C) David Genney

Re-examination of the historical data revealed that the early Morel records were invariably riparian, from Lightfoot’s first discovery on the banks of the Esk at Langholm through Hopkirk’s finds on the banks of the Clyde to Johnston’s “abundance” on the Whiteadder Water and Jerdon’s various sites on the Tweed and the Teviot the story was the same. This raised another question. How did these early mycologists know where to look for Morels? Simple. They were not mycologists. They were botanists, first and foremost, every one of them. And field botanists, unlike most modern field mycologists, are at their most active in Spring and Summer. Add to this the fact that, by Lightfoot’s time, the de-forestation of Scotland was almost complete and the lowlands almost entirely under the plough and we can understand that the lush vegetation of the riverbanks – Morel country – must have had a magnetic pull on the botanists of the day, hence the frequent encounters with the fungi. The Morels were not being encountered on fungus forays specifically targeting them but rather as an accidental by-catch of broader botanical excursions.

So why the decline in records of Morels in the latter part of the 19th Century and their apparent absence in the 20th? The answer appears to be that there was no decline in the fungi, just in the people with an interest in recording them. We have to remember that in the early post-Linnaean years the fungi were regarded as plants. In the minds of many botanists they were viewed as lower plants, but plants nonetheless. They were usually lumped together with ferns, mosses, lichens and algae as “cryptogamic vegetables”, but botanists continued to record them on their field outings. By the middle of the 19th Century, however, many botanists had begun to exclude the cryptogams from their considerations of local flora, and it is no accident that the Cryptogamic Society of Scotland and the British Mycological Society were founded in 1875 and 1896 respectively to help fill the void left when mainstream botanical societies sought to divorce themselves from the so-called “lower” plants. No doubt Morels have continued to be encountered in riverbank environments up until now, but they are presumably seen as being as irrelevant to a student of vascular plants as might a passing whinchat.

So there we have the challenge. It seems possible that one method of establishing the true distribution of naturally occurring Morels in Scotland lies in a thorough exploration of as many river systems as possible during the Spring. Perhaps the only thriving communities will be found where the river has eroded limestone then subsequently deposited a base-rich alluvial sediment on its lower banks. Only accumulated data will provide us with the answer to this and many other questions and help us build an understanding which may one day help us to preserve this fungal treasure, and possibly also its large ascomycete cousins. So have a go… if you’re out and about in April and May have a wee peek around the vegetation beside your local river – you may get a pleasant surprise!

Dick Peebles, 2013

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