Whether you’re a true mycophile or a greenhouse gardener looking to branch out, there’s no reason you can’t try to grow mushrooms at home! Morel mushrooms are a high-value and prized mushroom. Because they are difficult to cultivate commercially, they are hard to find in the market, not to mention expensive.
Luckily, there have been a lot of advancements in growing morel mushrooms that allow even home gardeners like yourself to try their hand at growing morel mushrooms. Although growing morels isn’t rocket science, it does require lots of patience. Depending on your climate, you can try to grow morels outside or in a controlled environment such as a greenhouse.
Morels are notoriously difficult mushrooms to grow, but that’s no reason you shouldn’t try. If you’re lucky enough to successfully grow morels, you’ll not only have a tasty mushroom to cook with, but you can also turn it into a potential source of income. So keep reading as we dig deep into the world of morels!
What are morel mushrooms?
Morels are a type of mushroom with a handful of different species. The most popular morel (and the one that “morel” usually refers to) is the yellow morel. It can easily be identified by its honeycombed “head” that is hollow when cut through.
More so than any other mushroom, morel is a high-value culinary fungus that can easily cost as much as $30-60/lb fresh depending on the season (and much more when dried). This exorbitant price comes from a few factors: not only are they in high demand, but they are notoriously difficult to grow commercially, and their wild growing is not reliable enough for the market.
The high price of morel mushrooms is one reason why it could be a good idea to try growing them yourself, either outside in your garden or in a greenhouse. You can also go foraging or “hunting” for morels in the wild, as long as you are 100% sure you can identify them properly!
How to forage for morel mushrooms
Finding morels in the woods is not an easy task. Not only are morel mushrooms hard to spot because of their camouflaged appearance, but they tend to hide under thick leaves, dead trees, or recently burned spots.
When foraging for morel mushrooms, it’s important you learn how to properly identify them. Morels have a unique honeycomb cap and are hollow inside. You can easily confirm this by slicing a morel lengthwise.
If you’re certain that the mushrooms you’ve gathered are morels, you can take them home and cook them for a delicious, earthy meal! Make sure to cut all foraged morels in half to check for any bugs hiding inside. Chuck any you find in the compost pile and cook those mushrooms up!
What is a false morel?
Although morels are relatively easy to identify thanks to their honeycombed and hollow structure, they can still be confused with several look-alikes. Most commonly, morels can be confused with false morels.
When eaten, false morels can cause intense gastro-intestinal distress, and in some cases can be deadly. They look similar to true morels but their caps are ugly, round, and reddish-brown. The cap does NOT connect to the stem but is more like a skirt (look at the image of a real morel to see the difference).
False morels contain the chemical Monomethyl Hydrazine (MMH) which induces vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and sometimes even death. MMH has also been found to be carcinogenic.
Always follow the mushroom hunter’s golden rule: when in doubt, go without!
Health benefits of morel mushrooms
Now that we’ve learned to identify real and false morels, it’s time to talk about what makes morels so great! As with other mushrooms, morels boast numerous health benefits, including:
- Excellent source of protein, potassium, copper, selenium, zinc, B and D vitamins
- Powerful anti-oxidant to protect against heart diseases, stress, and free radicals
- Unusual polysaccharide that stimulates and strengthens our immune system (according to a study carried out in 2002)
- Healing characteristics: includes a high level of selenium and niacin which fights cancer
- Natural remedy for diabetes: it can help lower blood sugar
- Can provide your daily iron demands which are 8mg per cup
- Morel essence gives the liver enzymes to regenerate primarily by dispensing antioxidants
- Helps with arthritis by decreasing the symptoms
- Can prevent hyperthyroidism
- Can prevent cardiovascular diseases because it is high in Vitamin B3.
Possible allergic reactions and side effects of morel mushrooms
Raw morels can result in some digestive upset, so you should always cook them first. Not only does heat destroy the morel’s natural toxins, but it also helps release the stored minerals and vitamins.
For people with a mushroom sensitivity, it’s possible to experience intestinal discomfort, diarrhea, and vomiting. In rare cases, you might experience superficial swelling in the lips, tongue, or esophagus.
A severe allergic reaction could look like gasping for air, nasal clogging, dizziness, or even anaphylaxis. If you experience any of these symptoms after consuming morels, go to the doctor or ER right away!
Additionally, alcohol consumption stimulates the existence of these allergic manifestations so it’s best to reduce your alcohol consumption when eating morels.
The history of indoor morel mushroom growing
One of the reasons morels are difficult to find and expensive is because they are notoriously hard to grow in an indoor environment. By contrast, the art of growing mushrooms such as baby bellas and criminis indoors has long been perfected, hence their commercial success.
The key to growing any kind of mushroom indoors is mimicking their natural environment as closely as possible. The biology of morels has long been elusive, except for the fact that wildfire and certain trees seem to spark their fruiting more than others.
However, morels seemingly grow wherever they please, whether under a fallen tree in the forest or in sandy soils near the ocean.
It wasn’t until 1982 that Ronald Ower, Gary Mills, and James Malachowski patented a triumphant morel growing system. A similar growing system has since been outlined by Peter Dilley here.
Now that we’re becoming more familiar with this mysterious fungus, growing morel mushrooms in your garden or greenhouse is more viable than ever. Keep in mind that they are delicate mushrooms to nurture, and it can take several years before you see results. We’ve outlined the three most popular techniques for growing morels below.
Techniques for growing morel mushrooms in a greenhouse
By now you should know that morels are not the easiest mushroom to cultivate, but it sure is rewarding should you be successful! There are a handful of ways to grow morel mushrooms at home. Some methods are easier, while others should only be attempted by experienced mushroom growers. Let’s have a look at the top methods below.
Growing morel mushrooms outdoors
The simplest way to grow morel mushrooms at home is to try to do so outdoors. We know, not technically a greenhouse, but we’ll get to that shortly! The key to growing morel mushrooms is to mimic their natural environment as much as possible, so keep reading to find out more.
The spawn method
Would you plant a garden without seeds? Likewise, you can’t start growing mushrooms without the necessary spores. One of the ways to introduce spores to your dedicated mushroom growing area is by obtaining a spawn, which is a substrate that’s been inoculated with the correct type of mushroom spores.
- Prepare the morel bed between summer and fall or in a climate where there is a transition of seasons; most kits are enough for a 4ft x 4ft square. Make sure the spot is shady and remains cool throughout the day.
- Sandy soil with some gypsum and peat moss seems to work fine for morels. The gypsum has calcium sulfate which helps develop the size of the mushroom caps.
- Simulate a post-forest fire environment by adding ashes to your soil.
- Spread your morel spawn into the top layer of the bed.
- Add mulch on top of the spawn such as wood chips or leaves.
- Then, the hardest part: wait. It might be weeks, months, or even years. Don’t be discouraged if no mushrooms appear right away; the mycelium are probably hard at work underneath the soil surface. Once the morels start sprouting, they can continuously produce mushrooms for many years after!
The spore slurry method
A spore slurry is a solution of water, salt, sugar, and spores. The spores are suspended in water and used to inoculate an outdoor environment such as a bed or log.
You can also make your own spore slurry following these steps:
- Begin with clean, non-chlorinated water in a sterile container.
- Combine a pinch of salt and about 1 Tbsp of molasses to the water. Stir well to combine.
- Add a few fresh morel mushrooms and allow the mixture to sit in a closed container in a warm room for 1 to 2 days.
- At this point, strain the mushrooms. You should be left with a fluid filled with millions of spores.
Once you have your spore slurry, you can spread it over your prepared bed (see “the spawn method” section above for more details). You can also inject it into a fallen log.
The spore slurry method is one of the simplest and most affordable ways of growing your own morels, but it can be fussy and unpredictable. Be patient!
Indoor morel cultivation – How to grow morel mushrooms in a greenhouse
Although difficult, it is possible to grow morel mushrooms indoors. Since the 1982 morel growing patents, many advancements have been made to make morel farming a more viable business.
For the hobby greenhouse gardener, growing morel mushrooms can be a fun (and potentially rewarding) side project to try in a unique controlled environment. Here are some key points for growing morel mushrooms in a greenhouse:
- Use metal trays or cake pans with drainage holes as fruiting trays.
- Clean and sterilize your trays, surfaces, and tools with 5% bleach.
- Add a layer of substrate to each tray, for example a mix of 50% organic compost, 30% potting soil, and 20% sand. You can add powdered limestone to increase the soil pH slightly.
- Water the substrate and let drain before adding the spawn or slurry to each tray.
- Store the trays in a dark spot with a temperature between 65°F to 70°F with 90% humidity.
- In 4 to 6 weeks, you should hopefully notice solid masses of mycelium or schlerotia on the surface of the substrate.
- At this point, place the trays in a fridge at 39°F for several weeks.
- Remove from the fridge and keep the trays at around 72°F with a relative humidity of over 90%.
- Wait, and harvest any mature morel mushrooms that develop!
Note: it’s important to pasteurize your growing medium to remove any bacteria and competing fungi. You can do this with a pressure cooker or steamer!
Common morel cultivation issues
These are some well-known issues in growing morel mushrooms. The growing instructions might seem easy, but failure rates are high. Here are some things that could reduce your chances of success:
- Lack of moisture: Morels need a moist environment. A misting system will be of great help.
- Too much moisture: It can produce bacterial and mold growth which may prevent morels from developing.
- Incorrect temperature: Morels thrive best when the soil is between 55°F and 59°F.
- Infected spawn: There may be an unknown issue that prevents your spawn from developing properly. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to identify this.
How to harvest morels
If you haven’t been discouraged, awesome! And if you’re reading this, ready to harvest your first morels, congratulations!
To harvest morel mushrooms, use a sharp knife to cut them free at the stem. Alternatively, you can just pull or pinch the mushroom loose from the substrate. Brush it to remove surface dirt and bugs.
Place your morels in the fridge until you’re ready to cook them. Enjoy!