Cap 2.0-8.0 cm tall, 2.0-6.0 cm broad, narrowly to broadly conic, occasionally more rounded, i.e. obtuse-conic to ovoid-conic; surface of parallel to meandering ridges and cross-ribs, pubescent when young in some forms; color at first greyish to ochre-brown, occasionally pinkish to blackish overall; with age the ridges dark-grey to blackish-brown, the pits lighter, i.e. ochre to grey-brown; margin when young, overlapping the stipe attachment, less so in age; context whitish, thin, firm, brittle, interior hollow; odor earthy to fungal; taste not investigated.
Stipe 2.0-7.0 cm tall, 1.5-3.0 cm thick, hollow, equal to enlarged above and below, the base with longitudinal folds; surface typically whitish to ochre, pinkish to blackish in some forms, pubescent, becoming furfuraceous in age.
Spores 19.0-24.0 x 11.0-15.0 µm, ellipsoid, smooth; spores creamy to pale-tawny in deposit.
Solitary, scattered, clustered, occasionally in large numbers after forest fires, or on disturbed ground, e.g. campgrounds, edges of dirt roads, recently logged areas; occasional in coniferous woods, so called "naturals;" fruiting from April at low elevations in the Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada to July and August at higher elevations; fairly common, but sporadic.
Edible and choice; occasional allergic reactions have been reported; morels should not be eaten raw; old, wormy specimens should be discarded.
Considering the attention given to black morels, there is surprisingly little agreement regarding their taxonomy. The problem vexing mycologists is a familiar one. Are black morels a single polymorphic species or a group of closely related taxa? Lacking a modern taxonomic treatment, we have arbitrarily used the name Morchella elata here, though Morchella angusticeps and Morchella conica are closely related, and may be present in the Sierra Nevada as well.
For morel lovers, this ambiguity is academic as black morels are all edible with caveats (see above). They are recognized by dark, ridged, pitted, usually conic-shaped caps, the margin fused to the stipe, or somewhat overlapping, and a whitish to cream-buff, furfuraceous stipe with folds at the base. Black morels begin fruiting in the mountains a few weeks after winter snows have melted. Modest numbers are found in campgrounds, especially near fire pits, edges of dirt roads, recently logged areas, and riparian areas. Epic fruitings, where morels fruit "as far as the eye can see," are less common, and occur almost exclusively the spring following a forest fire. The "best" burns are those in which trees have been only partially consumed, thus leaving some shade and needle cover for morels to develop. Few fungi are better camouflaged than the black morel. It takes a trained eye to pick them out from a background of partially burned bark, fallen branches, and conifer cones, especially those of Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir). Not surprisingly, advice given to novice morel hunters frequently includes the old saw, "find one morel and it will lead you to others."
Like many edible fungi, black morels are not without pretenders. Inexperienced collectors should become familiar with two look-alikes, Morchella semilibera and Verpa bohemica. The former is a morel with mediocre culinary qualities. It differs in having a ridged, only slightly pitted cap, the margin free to about half the distance to the stipe apex. It is found with hardwoods along stream drainages in the spring. Verpa bohemica, known as the Early Morel, because of its appearance before true morels, has a longitudinally wrinkled, not pitted cap, the latter attached to the stipe only at apex. It reportedly causes digestive upsets in some individuals. More distantly related are the False Morels, species of Gyromitra and Helvella, some of which are toxic. These can be separated by their lobed, wavy, or saddle-shaped caps. Finally, perhaps due to wishful thinking and olfactory impairment, the stinkhorn, Phallus hadriani, is occasionally mistaken for a morel.