Before you head out into the woods, take some time to learn about morel mushroom identification. Although not usually difficult to identify, true morels do have poisonous look-alikes.
The term “false morel” describes a few species of mushrooms that contain a toxin known as monomethyl hydrazine (MMH). This is the same chemical found in certain rocket fuels and can cause dizziness, vomiting, and in some cases even death.
Although certain people and cultures do eat the false morel, the truth is one never knows how toxic any given false morel will be. Plus, most false morels require special cooking preparations. So, unless you learn from someone who knows the false morels very well, it’s best to avoid them.
There have been no deaths from these mushrooms, most in the Verpa and Gyromitra species. Moreover, no one really knows the long-term carcinogenic effects of consuming MMH.
How to Find the Good Stuff and Avoid the Look-alikes!
I also have to add my standard disclaimer: don’t eat anything solely on the basis of what you’ve read here. If you’re new to morel mushroom identification, have an experienced hunter take you out and check your first finds.
Now don’t let all that scare you off! Morel mushroom identification isn’t too hard, and with some experience, you’ll be able to distinguish true from false. I’ll start with the two main features to look at, and then move on to some other identification hints.
Of course, before you identify them you have to find them! Read this page on morel hunting tips if you need help finding morels.
Morel Mushroom Identification 101
The two most important features to examine when trying to identify a morel mushroom are the cap shape and whether the interior is hollow.
Morels have a very distinct cap. Fairly uniform, they appear ridged and pitted inwards. See the picture to the right for a close up of a morel cap.
On most morels the cap will be attached to the stem, not hanging free as with Amanitas and many other mushrooms.
There are species known as “half-free morels”, where only the bottom of the cap hangs freely from the stem. These can be harder to identify so discard if you have any doubts.
After you’ve examined the cap the next important identification step is to slice the mushroom lengthwise. A true morel will be hollow inside from the tip of the cap to the bottom of the stem.
I took the picture to the below, note how the inside is hollow and how the cap is attached directly to the stem.
Here are a few other features that may aid in morel mushroom identification.
- Nearby trees. Morels are known for their relationships with trees, particularly ash, elm, and apple trees. See Michael Kuo’s North American Trees page for more help with tree identification.
- Time of year. These are spring mushrooms, fruiting anywhere from February to June depending on where you live. Cooler areas will see fruiting later in the year (May-June).
- Cap length. In most morels the cap is longer than the stem. This may not be the case with half-free morels, so be sure to check cap attachment as well.
- Spore print. The morel spore print is usually light colored, cream to light yellow.
To make a spore print, simply set the mushroom down on dark colored paper and place a bowl or vase over it to avoid air current disruption. Leave overnight and the next morning you should see a collection of light-colored spores around the mushroom.
Below is a list of some differences between true and false morels. Look at the accompanying pictures. Note the tall inward-pitted true morel cap in the first picture, and the shorter outwards-bulging false morel cap in the second.
True Morel Mushroom:
- Cap is covered in pits and ridges. It appears to be pitted inwards.
- Cap is more uniformly shaped and often longer than the stem (not always true with half-free morels).
- Cap is attached directly to the stem. With half-free morels half of the cap is attached to the stem, with just the bottom half hanging free.
- If you slice the mushroom lengthwise the inside will be completely hollow. It looks like a “morel mold”.
False Morel Look-alike:
- Cap is more wavy and lobed. It appears to be bulging outwards.
- Cap often has an irregular shape and appears “squashed”, almost as though it has been stepped on.
- Cap hangs freely off the stem. If you slice it lengthwise you’ll see the cap is attached to the very top of the stem.
- The inside is not hollow. It will be filled with some cottony fibers or chunks of tissue.
- Learn more about false morel identification here.
Now take this knowledge and see if you can apply it in the woods. Just remember that catchy old adage that’s repeated throughout this site and in mushroom clubs everywhere: When in doubt, throw it out!