False vs. Edible Morel Mushrooms and Fiddlehead Ferns

Reader Contribution by Lyndsay Dawson Mynatt

Wild edibles are a joy to find, when identified correctly. The feeling of euphoria can easily misguide the senses into confusing false varieties for the real thing. Morels and Fiddleheads are two species that contain edible and inedible counterparts that is distinguishable with a little know-how.

Morel mania. Swept away by the giddiness of finding the elusive species, I rapidly fill my basket until it is overflowing with hundreds of morels – a record find! The mushroom fairies must be smiling on my efforts of locating the hidden gems, camouflaged by pine needles, cones, and new growth.  I guard my basket with Gollum-like tendencies.  No one must see my precious. Then at the flip of a page of the mushroom guidebook, my precious turns to precarious. My basket is not full of morels, but of disappointments.  Verpa bohemica, false morel. The current debate of Verpas is too inconclusive to add it as a regularly consumed item on my foraging list. Although I have eaten it (mistakenly) and I would probably eat it again, consuming carcinogens is something I try to avoid. 

Misidentification of Morel Mushrooms

Ready to kick the smiling ferries, I wonder how I confused the two species. Research reveals a simple mistake. Although Verpa bohemica and Morchella elata look identical from the outside, the stem and cap attachment defines the truth. Real morels are hollow from stem to cap, while false morels are attached like a thimble. The stem of false morels has cotton candy like fluff on the inside.  It’s that simple unless the mushroom haze clouds your brain.

Morel Mushroom Harvest and Preparation

Harvest the correctly identified Morchella by cutting the stem just above the ground. Be mindful to leave a good amount behind so spores can multiply in the following years. Clean the mushroom by lightly rinsing and brushing; don’t let too much water be absorbed into the flesh.

The entire mushroom is edible; so do not hesitate to cook up the whole thing.  Large enough caps can be stuffed with meat, cheese, and seasonings, while smaller ones can be sliced in delicate rings and marinated with oil, lemon, and spices. Recipes are endless, just be creative and cook thoroughly!

Fiddlehead Ferns

Verdant tightly coiled fiddlehead is a crunchy delight that is disappearing quickly with the onset of summer.Fiddlehead is the furled frond of a young fern, specifically edible in the Ostrich and Lady Fern varieties. If you live in the Northern climates, there may still be a few tightly coiled stems waiting to be enjoyed.  Find them now, lest you wait another ten months to enjoy their toothsome crunch.

Fiddlehead Fern Identification and Harvest

The plant is easy to identify, with the coils resembling the curled scroll of a violin covered in orangutan-colored papery leaves. The edible varieties can be distinguished from their carcinogen containing cousins, the Braken Fern, by examining the stems. The tips of the Bracken Fern have eagle-like talons, while edible varieties are rigidly coiled in one singular stem. Although deemed toxic by scientific sources, there is ongoing debate on the edibility of Bracken Fern.

Harvest only small, firm, and tightly coiled specimens by snipping the stem about an inch under the coil. The University of Maine’s Extension Agriculture program offers a video on sustainable harvesting guidelines.

Fiddlehead Fern Preparation

Place the cut pieces in cold water and rub off the papery exterior, revealing the bright green under layer.  Once cleaned, fiddleheads should be cooked immediately or stored in the fridge for no longer than 1 day. As with most wild edibles, never consume them raw. The snappy vegetable can be steamed, boiled, sautéed, battered and fried, or grilled. Whichever way you cook fiddlehead, you will be delighted with its clean nutty asparagus flavor. Devoted to the love of this particular species, Fiddle-heads.com contains a plethora of links to recipes.

The best ways to avoid misidentification is to learn from experts.  Join a foraging society, or reference selected guidebooks. Mistakes offer good lessons too, unless the result is death (that is an Into the Wild reference, not sheer morbidity). Forage far, and forage wide. May your harvests be plenty.