Sweeping a hand over several inches of fallen leaves recently revealed a finger-high mushroom on the slope beside Little Crum Creek.

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Its distinctive cap begs identification, and I soon found some resemblance to pictures of the Morchella species of mushrooms. 

These highly-prized & edible “true morels” entice all kinds of foragers and mycophiles to the woods around this time of year. 

But looks can be deceiving, and mistakenly picking any of the “false morels” could leave more than a bad taste in your mouth.  Consuming these poisonous mushrooms might warrant a trip to the hospital.

Stakes like these make the quest for identification rather compelling.  So I’ve compiled some information that might help us determine what kind of mushroom I’ve found.

Pennsylvania mushroom expert Bill Russell conveniently categorizes our region’s most commonly found morels into five species.  In four of these, the bottom edges of the caps are attached directly to the stem (unlike our mushroom).  This characteristic makes them relatively easy to identify as true morels.

But the first appearing morel species of the season is a little different.  Its cap attaches to the stem about halfway up inside the cap, and the bottom edge of the cap hangs free from the stem. Thus Morchella semilibera is known as the half-free or semifree morel.

Now an inexperienced observer like myself might easily confuse an edible half-free morel with a poisonous false morel like Verpa bohemica, whose cap edge also hangs free from the stem.

But some sources indicate that, unlike the half-free morel, a poisonous Verpa stem attaches to the topmost underside of the mushroom cap.  As Michael Kuo vividly describes, the false morel cap rests on the stem like a thimble on a pencil. 

With this distinction in mind, I cut the mushroom in half to see how the cap meets the stem:  

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Spore color can be another useful clue in identifying mushrooms. 

However, in the case of  true and false morels, the color range might be too fine to differentiate.  

Both Morchella and Verpa spores can be yellow, but Morchella might also range from yellow to cream.

Therefore, I’m not sure a spore print will tip us one way or another, but it’s a fun experiment to try.

It took over 24 hours to obtain this print on glass:

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Based on the evidence so far, one might guess this is a true morel, particularly Morchella semilibera. 

But I have seen nearly identical mushrooms labeled as Verpa varieties of false morels.

And the only things I’m willing to confirm right now are the difficulty of identifying a mushroom and the need for some input.

So what do you think:  true morel (Morchella semilibera), false morel (Verpa bohemica), or something else altogether?

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