Mycology, or the study of fungi, used to be considered a branch of botany rather than biology, until it was recognized that fungi are more 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 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 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 the common morel may 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 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, merkels and dryland fish (see box at left).

Members of this species can vary in size, color, and shape of the cap. When cut down the center, the ‘true morels' reveal a hollow stalk and cap, unlike a ‘false morel,' which looks similar but has a thick, white stalk that is deeply furrowed 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.

Though morels normally occur in the spring, they can appear after any unusual period of cool, rainy weather.

What's in a name?

The numerous local and colorful names for morels have various storied beginnings. ‘Molly moocher' is the name given to them in parts of central Appalachia, where town folk often found them fruiting around old apple orchards. The Latin name for apples is ‘malus,' so it is possible that ‘malus morchella' was a term that was somehow meaningfully shortened to ‘Molly moocher.' People in this region also call them ‘merkels' (a corruption of the word miracle), based on a tale of how a mountain family was saved from starvation by finding and eating morels. When sliced lengthwise and then breaded and fried, the outline of a morel can resemble the shape of a fish, thus the name ‘dryland fish.' Whatever you call them, there's one thing for certain – they are delicious!

About Nature Watch

Nature Watch is a monthly feature in Venture Out by Lynne Weber and Jim Weber, the authors of ‘Nature Watch Austin: Guide to the Seasons in an Urban Wildland,' recently published by Texas A&M University Press. They work in the Austin high-tech industry, where she is a senior manager and he is a senior engineer. Both are certified Texas Master Naturalists, and Lynne is past president of the Capital Area chapter. The Webers are dedicated naturalists who conduct bird surveys, monitor and map invasive species, write nature columns for neighborhood newsletters, and lead nature hikes among their many outdoor activities. Send your nature-related questions to naturewatch@austin.rr.com, and they will do their best to answer them.