Morels: Where did they start?

With the start of Morel season, it’s interesting to contemplate where Morels themselves started. Studies published within the last 11 years suggest that Morels originated in North America. A Study published 18 March 2021 reexamines the evidence.

There are over 80 Morchella (Morel) species distributed around the world, mostly in the Northern hemisphere. The oldest Morel branch has just two species: M. rufobrunnea (blushing morel, woodchip morel) and M. anatolica.

M. rufobrunnea, shown in the photo above (Copyright © 2017 Jacob Kalichman), is found widely in North America (including Oregon). It was long thought to occur only in the New World, but more recently has been collected around the Mediterranean and in Australia. M. anatolica, on the other hand, has been found only in the Mediterranean basin.

The newest study considers the old evidence, adding new specimens, genetic sequencing, and historical climatic information to decipher the origin of the three Morel branches (“clades” or sections). Those branches are:

  • The Morchella rufobrunnea clade (the two oldest species mentioned above) aka Morchella sect. Rufobrunnea;
  • The Morchella esculenta clade (“yellow” Morels) aka M. sect. Morchella;
  • The Morchella elata clade (“black” Morels) aka M. sect. Distantes.

Here’s what the study concludes:

  • Contrary to earlier studies, the genus Morchella and its oldest branch, the Morchella rufobrunnea clade, probably originated in the Mediterranean basin rather than North America.
  • The Morchella esculenta clade (“yellow” Morels) probably originated in Asia, and later spread to Europe and North America.
  • The Morchella elata clade (“black” Morels) likely started here — i.e., in western North America — probably with Morchella tomentosa (the black-foot or fuzzy-foot morel).

Is this the final word on the origin of Morels? Maybe not. While the order in which Morels evolved is straightforward, evidence of where they first evolved is open to different interpretations. The authors point out that:

“ancestral reconstructions should not be viewed as definitive or immutable, but more as a work-in-progress toward a deeper understanding of the genus at a global scale.”

Michael Loizides, Zacharoula Gonou-Zagou, Giorgos Fransuas, Panagiotis Drakopoulos, Carmel Sammut, Aristotelis Martinis & Jean-Michel Bellanger (2021) Extended phylogeography of the ancestral Morchella anatolica supports preglacial presence in Europe and Mediterranean origin of morels, Mycologia, DOI: 10.1080/00275514.2020.1869489.

OMS members who are interested in learning more about this study are welcome to contact