The morel of this story was cause for much excitement upon our arrival in Fort Collins, Colorado, yesterday afternoon. I came prepared, my mushroom identification guides in my backpack, in the hopes that the recent rains and warmer temperatures down in Fort Collins would result in some fungus growth. Sure enough, when I asked Wendy if she’d seen any mushrooms around, she replied that there were, in fact, mushrooms growing right in the backyard.
I rushed outside to find one last mushroom amidst the deep grass and dog poops in her tiny, yet lush, backyard. And it was a morel! I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d never found a morel before, but there are several varieties and they all have distinctive, honeycombed caps and are supposed to be “choice” wild edibles. Gregg was a little turned off by the presence of poop but I assured him I’d wash (even though I understand you aren’t supposed to wash wild mushrooms) and paper-towel it clean, scraping off any dirty parts with a knife.
A couple of days have passed since the last rain, so the honeycombed cap was starting to decay into brownish goo—but no matter, I’d just eat the stem this time. So I plucked the funny mushroom and showed it to Gregg and Wendy, grinning from ear to ear.
“That mushroom has a funny smell,” Gregg said, handing it back to me, then repeatedly smelling his fingers and wrinkling his nose.
“I think it smells delicious,” I countered. “It smells like a yummy mushroom that I want to eat.”
Wendy commented on the smell, too, but I was too excited to think much about it, so I photographed my mushroom and then washed/rubbed/scraped it clean, removing the gooey cap with a knife. The cap came off the stalk cleanly, leaving me with a spongy, hollow, white stalk that tapered on both ends like a banana.
I was excited—and nearly 100% certain that I’d found a morel—but I am no fool, so the next thing I did was run to the car to get my mushroom guides and confirm my identification.
Hollow stalk? Check. Honeycombed cap? Check. Honeycombed cap completely intergrown with the stalk? No so much. (In fact, the cap of my mushroom slipped off the stalk easily, leaving the spongy banana in its entirety.) Uh oh.
I read on to find out that “if your ‘morel’ has a sack at the base of the stalk, you have a stinkhorn” and not a “morel” at all. Check.
According to Arora, stinkhorns (Phallus species) are related to puffballs, but are only edible in the egg stage before the odor develops and the stalk appears. Unlike morels, the tips or “horns” of mature stinkhorns are covered with “foul-smelling spore slime.”
Okay, so I guess at this point I’ll admit that the mushroom I found might have smelled a teensy bit bad after all. Upon realizing that it was not a morel, I tossed it in the trash and we went out to watch a movie, but when we got back it smelled so bad I insisted on taking the trash out.
According to Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains (1997) by Vera Stucky Evenson, morels (Morchella species) and stinkhorns can be differentiated by when they fruit too, since morels appear in spring and early summer, whereas stinkhorns appear in late summer and early fall. In addition to stinkhorns, there are other “false morels” (Gyromitra species) that can make a person sick, so proper identification is very important when morel-hunting.
Since the morel of this story was, in fact, a stinkhorn—then the moral of this story should be clear by now too: Always make proper identification prior to consuming a wild mushroom!