What are the benefits of the Yellow Morel?
Yellow Morels (Morchella esculenta) are:
- a source of estrogen and testosterone precursors – and subsequent ‘aphrodisiac’ qualities
- a powerful antibacterial agent
- a source of the immunostimulatory polysaccharide, galactomannan
- an inhibitor of cancer, especially of the colon
There are a reported 17 species of Morchella across the globe, finding homes in 28 different countries. 14 of these are regularly used as food and 5 are also or exclusively used medicinally. Over 40% of Morels are protein. They also contain nutraceutical molecules that act as adaptogens, imunostimulates, and anti-tumor agents. We will dig into the details for these medicinal components in a bit.
Our mycoform for this article is the Yellow Morel. It also goes by the names ‘Common Morel,’ ‘True Morel,’ ‘Sponge Morel,’ ‘Guuch’ in Kashmiri (Debnath et al, 144), (Bhatt et al, 13) and in the Himalayan dialect of Marathi it is referred to as ‘Gucchi’ (Negi, 306-307). Gucchi, or variations of it, are a common name across India for Morchella escuelnta and other Morels. Gucchi in Marathi means to punch or blow apart with the front of the fist. These mushrooms are also widely considered to fruit directly with strong storms that feature thunder in lighting. Culturally, in the Himalayas and adjacent regions the Yellow Morel is viewed as tiny fists that burst from the earth wherever lightning strikes.
Temperate conifer-dominant forests with loamy (fertile dirt with clay and sand) soil and humus (a top layer of decomposed plant material) are the preferred habitat for Morchella escuelenta (Negi, 308). While some morels require a forest fire or other burn state to fruit, Yellow Morels will fruit when they have the appropriate moisture and nutrient conditions. As in many other fungi the bioactive molecules found in Morchella esculenta are derived from polysaccharides – complex sugars typically bound together by lectins (proteins) – and posses, as has been mentioned, immunostimulatory, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor molecules. In addition to these it has been found that extracts of M. esculenta are effective anti-bacterial agents (in some cases superior to standard antibiotics) against Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella typhimurium, Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli and Enterobacter cloacae. The fruiting body is rich in B-complex vitamins (Sud and Sud, 728). The mycelia possess beta-carotenes and linoleic acid (a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid), which are essential to the human diet (Bhatt et al, 13). Polyunsaturated fats are the most abundant compound found in M. esculenta, after their proteins (Heleno et al, 2).
Diving into Yellow Morels more potent medicinal properties, it has been found to produce ergosterols (the precursor to Vitamin D), the immunostimulatory polysaccharide galactomannan – a substance also found in Cordyceps sinensis (Heleno et al, 4,21), and cytotoxic polysaccharides found to provide anti-tumor properties against Dalton’s lymphoma and colon cancer tumors (Liu et al, 2016, 10). It is also reported to produce precursors for testosterone and estrogen (Sud and Sud, 728). In the Kashmir region M. esculenta enjoys ethnomycological use as an aphrodisiac, being prepared as a paste of the dried fruit body and blended with warm milk, lending strength to this fungi’s efficacy in this regard (Debnath et al, 151).
Morels are expensive and have defied humankind’s attempts at domestication for over a century. Cultivation of morels did not find any success until the twenty-first century. A look at their life cycle can help explain why. Morels have asexual and sexual reproductive phases. Another item they have in common with cordyceps species. They have a phase in which they produce condidia (asexual spores that produce genetically identical organisms as the parent) and a phase where they produce sclerotia, a mass of hyphen threads capable of surviving long periods.. Morel sclerotia can germinate in one of two ways:
- Carpogenically: Production of a fruit body
- Myceliogenically: Production of more primary mycelium
During the myceliogenical phase, if two hyphae fuse, they pair nuclei, and create a new genetically different, sclerotia (Liu et al, 2017, 2). No wonder these mycoforms frustrate their would-be human domesticators. They have many paths towards genetic diversity and mating, only one of which concludes in the fruit bodies we seek. This lends one to think that, perhaps, the largest problem in artificial cultivation of morels is the lack of patience in the farmer. Farming has developed expectations of providing a predictable crop year after year. Perhaps a shift in perception is required for morels and other mushrooms that have multi-year life cycles between fruiting. The practice of agroforestry, while following similar principles, does not adhere as strictly to the need for annual repeatable results as say, modern monoculture.
The earliest report of outdoor cultivation of morels comes from the French mycologist Ernest Henri Roze in the year 1882 and is curiously associated with the Jerusalem Artichoke (see Roze, E. (1883). Le parasitisme du Morchella esculenta Pers. sur l’Helianthus tuberosus L.). From that point, it was almost exactly one hundred years until a graduate student, Ronald D. Ower, pioneered a handful of cultivation methods using Yellow Morel sclerotium and building off of the work of Paul Stamets with his colleagues Gary Mills and James Malachowski. Mills and Malachowski were granted patents, as was Ower, but sadly his were posthumously granted following his horribly brutal murder in Delores Park, San Francisco in 1986 . The US Patent office list Ower’s original patents under the numbers US459809A, US4757640A, and US486678A. Gary Mills is now the general manager of the Michigan company Mycopia Mushrooms and is still at work perfecting the indoor cultivation of morels.
Outdoor cultivation has found more success. Stewart Craig Miller or Morel Farms patented a method of bonding Morchella mycelium to the roots of elm trees in 2005 and sells successfully inoculated seedlings to the public. By far the most successful have been the efforts of farmers in the Yunnan Province of China who have reliably produced over 6500 lbs of field cultivated morels since 2002. They utilize Ower’s methods and often refer to the slain mycologist as the ‘Father of Morels’ (Liu et al, 2017, 4). Cultivation is done under a forest or artificial canopy and includes six steps:
- Spawn Production
- Land Preparation
- Exogenous Nutrition Supply
- Fruiting Management
Live cultures of Morchella esculenta are produced on plates of potato dextrose agar. This is spawned on a substrate of 46% wheat, 20% wheat husk, 18% wheat bran, 10% sawdust, 1% gypsum, 1% calcium carbonate, and 4% humus (Liu et al, 2017, 7). Any All-In-One Wood Based Mushroom Grow Bag should be an adequate equivalent for the hobbyist.
Once the initial substrate is colonized, it is transferred to plowed soil beds 5’ wide by 1/2’ deep. The spawn is sown directly into these beds beneath a suitable natural or artificial canopy. This is typically done in October through December in the Yunnan province (Liu et al, 2017, 8). Yunnan enjoys a year-round spring-like climate due to its elevation and October marks the end of its rainy season (retrieved from https://www.chinahighlights.com/yunnan/weather.htm). If the conditions are right, morel mycelia will colonize the soil beds to the point where white conidia is visible on the surface. It is at this point that a second substrate of pasturized wheat, chaff, sawdust, and cottonseed hull (the research states the percentages at this stage appear to be less precise) is applied to the beds as a renewed supply of nutrition. The added nutrition encourages the conidia spores to germinate and form fruiting bodies.
It is not currently known if sclerotia are formed or if the additional nutritional supply takes the place of this second step typically seen in the wild to precede the formation of fruit bodies (Liu et al, 2017, 11). The success of the farmers in the Yunnan province is unquestioned now after nearly twenty years of cultivation experience. Given the same attention to the mycoform’s unique requirements, it could feasibly be replicated anywhere where a suitable climate and growing season is present.
- Cover photo from Hamilton
- Morchella esculenta 1 from Andrew Durso
- Morchella Farming from Liu et al, 2017
- Bhatt R P, Singh U, and Uniyal P (2018) Healing Mushrooms of Uttarkhand Himalaya, India. Current Research in Environmental & Applied Mycology (8,1) pp 1-23.
- Debnath S, Debnath B, Das P, Saha A K (2019) Review on an Ethnomedicinal Practices of Wild Mushrooms by the Local Tribes of India. Journal of Applied Pharmaceutical Science (9, 8) pp 144-156
- Heleno S A, Stojkovic D, Barros L, Glamočlija J, Soković M, Martins A, Queiroz M J R P, and Ferreira I C F R (2013) A Comparative Study of Chemical Composition, Antioxidant and Antimicrobial Properties of Morchella esculenta (L.) Pers. from Portugal and Serbia. Food Research International (51, 1) pp 1-34
- Liu C, Sun Y, Mao Q, Guo X, Li P, Liu Y, and Xu N (2016) Characteristics and Antitumor Activity of Morchella esculenta Polysaccharide Extracted by Pulsed Electric Field. International Journal of Molecular Sciences (17, 986) pp 1-16
- Liu Q, Ma H, Zhang Y, and Dong C (2017) Artificial Cultivation of True Morels: Current State, Issues and Perspectives. Critical Reviews in Biotechnology pp 1-17
- Negi C S (2006) Morels (Morchella spp.) in Kumaun Himalaya. Natural Product Radiance. (5,4) pp 306-310
- Sud S and Sud K (2017) A Review of Toxic Effects and Aphrodisiac Action of Morchella Esculenta (Wild Morel – Guchhi Mushroom) – A Himalayan Delight. European Journal of Pharmaceutical and Medical Research (4, 8) pp 726-730