Poisonous False Morel Mushrooms

You may have heard of a morel mushroom, but what's the deal with the fake one?

A false morel mushroom, note the shape of the capThe term "false morel" encompasses a number of different species including Gyromitra esculenta (the beefsteak mushroom), Gyromitra caroliniana, and others in the Verpa and Helvella genera. They are often mistaken for the edible delicacies in the Morchella genus (true morels).

These are some of many poisonous mushrooms that contain the chemical monomethyl hydrazine (MMH). MMH causes vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, and sometimes death. Furthermore, MMH is suspected to be carcinogenic.

"But wait," you ask, "haven't I heard of people eating these mushrooms with no ill effect?"

You probably have. Many people have eaten them and some even hunt for them specifically. It may surprise you that Gyromitra esculenta is considered a delicacy in parts of the Great Lakes region of the United States and in parts of Scandinavia. You can even buy them in Finland, where they come with preparation instructions!

So what's the problem? One danger is the varying levels of MMH in different poisonous mushrooms. Some species contain very little, others contain enough to kill. MMH levels also vary among geographic regions within a single species. Nobody knows how toxic any false morel will be in any location.

Let's learn more about the fake morel. We'll start with some facts, move on to identification, and finally take a look at who eats these mushrooms. For a more complete list of straight morel mushroom hunting tips click here.


False Morel Mushroom Facts


  • Caps are usually brown or reddish brown and occasionally yellow. Most stems are a light color, ranging from white to tan.
  • These mushrooms are considered saprotrophs, meaning they feed on dead and decaying organic matter. Some have suggested that they may be mycorrhizal as well (forming a symbiotic relationship with trees).
  • Like true morels, false ones are often found in areas where the forest floor has been disrupted. You're more likely to see them near washes, rivulets, man-made disturbances in the ground, and roadsides.
  • Some species that are considered false are Gyromitra esculenta, Gyromitra caroliniana (above), Gyromitra infula, Verpa bohemica, and Verpa conica.

You can see Gyromitra esculenta below:

False morel mushrooms - gyromitra esculenta

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How to Identify the False Morel Mushroom


Inside of a false morel mushroom, notice how it's not hollow Inside of a false morel. By Brian Adamo (adamo588) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
So how do you tell a true morel from a false one? Observe the following:

  • Make note of the cap shape. The false caps that are "wavy" or "lobed". They appear to be bulging outwards. True morels have a more uniformly shaped cap with pits or ridges. They appear to be pitted inwards rather than bulging.
  • The cap of the false mushroom hangs freely from the stem. A true morel has a cap that will be attached to the stem. This is not always the case but more often than not it is.
  • If you slice an edible morel open from top to bottom it will be hollow inside. A non-edible one will usually be filled with wispy cotton-like fibers or chunks of tissue. (Fabulous example of this on the right).

Go here for a more in-depth article, including a handy chart, on how to tell a true morel mushroom from a false morel.

See the pictures below. Note how the false one on the left seems to be bulging outward and the true morel on the right is pitted inwards?

(Picture on left taken by Severine Meißner and is published under the GNU Free Documentation License.)

False Morel Mushroom True Morel Mushroom

A seasoned mushroom hunter usually won't have a problem making this identification. Always consult a local expert if you're inexperienced or uncertain. Never eat a mushroom based solely on mushroom pictures that you've seen on the Internet!

If you feel sick or dizzy after eating what you thought was an edible morel, seek help immediately!

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Who's Eating These Mushrooms....and Why?


False morel mushrooms for sale By Ilmari Karonen (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

The picture at the right shows false morels for sale at a market in Helsinki, Finland. People in other parts of Europe and parts of the United States eat them as well. They often come with warnings and preparation instructions.

One reason people eat them is the belief that correct preparation renders them safe. Through parboiling, the toxins are reduced and the mushrooms become edible.

However, MMH is a cumulative toxin. This means that its levels will build up in your body after repeated consumption. This could lead to illness or even death. Keep that in mind the next time someone insists to you that they've safely eaten these poisonous mushrooms.

Plenty of people eat these for years with no problems. But why risk it? These are poisonous mushrooms that have caused deaths and illness. No one knows how toxic any given mushroom will be so it's best to just avoid them altogether.

Besides, no false morel could match the taste of a true Morchella esculenta!


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