False Morel Mushrooms

Perhaps you've heard of false morel mushrooms and may be wondering about these mysterious and sometimes debated fungi.  These so-called false morels include mushrooms represented by the genera Gyromitra, Helvella, and Verpa, sometimes confused with Morchellastrue morels. 

What are False Morel Mushrooms?

False morels is a common name that has been given to Gyromitra, as well as Verpa and Helvella, toxic mushrooms that foragers have mistaken for true morel mushrooms.

In the opinion of many medical and scientific professionals, as well as people who've been gravely ill or lost loved ones, they should not be eaten. We know that some argue that false morel mushrooms are edible. If this is your stance, hear us out as we present the case against eating false morels. 

Mushrooms in the Gyromitra genus contain a serious toxin called gyromitrin. We’ll offer scientific and medical resources for your benefit as well as personal testimonies of some who regret having consumed them. 

Morel Mushroom vs False Morel
How to Tell False Morels From True Morel Mushrooms

We've been asked, "How do you tell the difference between real and false morels?" If you're relatively new to foraging for morel mushrooms, our Morel Mushroom page offers a lot of info and is a great place to start learning about foraging for morels.  

It is extremely important to be very sure of what you're picking when hunting for any wild mushrooms. It is vital to research and familiarize yourself with the characteristics of both true  and false morels. 

One of the best ways to train your eyes and your brain to recognize the difference between real and false morels is to spend time studying photos of both true and false morel mushrooms online or in a good field guide book.

We've provided some great Pictures of Morel Mushrooms. These sources will help you to quickly recognize true morel mushrooms vs false morels.

Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself: These are characteristics of false morel mushrooms and will help you determine the differences between a morel mushroom vs false morel: 

  • Is the cap wrinkled, irregular, and looks brain-like?
  • Is the cap attached to the stem only at the top?
  • Is the cap reddish, orangish, or purplish in color?
  • Is it out of season for a true morel?
  • When sliced down the middle is there filament or a webbing inside?

These are all characteristics of false morel mushrooms.

Once you're out foraging, if you are still unsure what you're looking at, the easiest way to determine if it's a good one is to simply cut the mushroom in half from top to bottom. 

A true morel is completely hollow inside. False morels have cottony webbing inside as in the photo of the Verpa bohemica cross-section above. 

As the old timers used to say, "If not hollow, do not swallow!" 
And as another old adage goes, "If it’s reddish, you could be dead-ish!" 

While some choose to eat them, we would not recommend it! Is it worth the risks? We present the facts here. You decide. Read on!

Unsolved Mysteries Surrounding False Morel Mushrooms

Mysteries and inconsistencies surround toxic false morel mushrooms. 

Why are false morels deadly for some people and seemingly tolerable for others? Why does  toxin production differ from one mushroom to another in the same genus and species? Interestingly, a study done on the amount of gyromitrin in the false morel discovered that mushrooms collected at higher altitudes had less toxin than those at lower elevations. Why does the altitude in which a mushroom grows determine the amount of toxin? Why does the concentration of toxins vary by location and soil, from season to season, and change during the growth cycle? 

These unknowns surrounding false morel mushrooms contribute to the ongoing controversy regarding whether or not it is okay to eat them. 

Besides the many variables involving individual mushrooms, there are still unanswered questions regarding the varying effects of toxins from one person to another. Is safety dependent on one’s own metabolism? Scientists don't know. Drinking alcohol while eating toxic false morel mushrooms seems to reduce an individual's tolerance level. It is also known that children and pregnant mothers are at especially high risk for adverse reactions.

More unknowns involve the fact that individuals have varying reactions to the same dose of toxin. There seems to be no relationship between the dose and physiological damage, or seeming lack thereof. This is why, if you yourself choose to consume false morels, it is extremely foolhardy to suggest that they are edible for others.

So, Can You Eat False Morels?

Are false morels poisonous? Yes. 

But can you eat them, as some claim? We strongly suggest a no answer. Here's why...

Toxic reactions to false morels have been known for at least a hundred years. When eaten, some people have suffered severely or died, while others exhibited no immediate symptoms after eating similar amounts of mushrooms from the same dish. Yet others, after eating Gyromitra esculenta for many years without ill-effects, suddenly experienced poisoning. Today the fungus is widely recognized as being potentially deadly.

Internationally recognized forensic and clinical toxicologist, Dr. John Trestrail, wrote, "Like rockets, MMH-containing mushrooms have the potential of moving the human body from an earthly existence to heaven.” 

Mycologist Larry Evans warns us, "MMH affects liver function and has a cumulative effect". You may get really sick the first time you eat false morels, or you may not notice the damaging effects after eating them over time. "You can get a dose of false morel over a lifetime,he said"and it'll kill you at the last meal. Until then, you won't know it."

Denis R. Benjamin, MD, states, “It is perhaps ironic for a mushroom, Gyromitra esculenta, whose very name, esculenta, means edible, to be so poisonous." And John Trestrail, a chairman of the NAMA toxicology committee adds, “Persons who decide to continue with this gastronomic gamble should have the numbers of their regional poison centers permanently engraved on their eating utensils.” 

This is why there is a Number One Rule when mushroom hunting: "When in doubt, throw it out!"

Some Symptoms of False Morel Toxicity

After eating false morel mushrooms, you may start to feel unwell. In the case of mild to moderate reactions, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • stomach pain
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • bloating
  • fatigue
  • muscle cramps
  • lack of muscle coordination
  • dizziness
  • headache

Symptoms are likely to set in after 2 - 24 hours. If, heaven forbid, the reaction is severe, symptoms may also include high fever, seizures, catastrophic liver failure, convulsions, coma, and death (University of Alaska).

Perhaps the last few times you ate false morels you didn't become ill. But please keep in mind that the effects of the toxins are cumulative (source).  

The effects of these toxic mushrooms, even if seemingly tolerated, can have an adverse effect in your body, undermining your health. Widespread hemolysis has been reported from which can result in kidney failure. Seizures can also develop via inhibition of the neurotransmitter GABA. Liver failure and even death have occurred. 

Why Are False Morel Mushrooms Dangerous? 

The toxicity of false morels comes from gyromitrin, which contains the chemical MMH or monomethylhydrazine1 

MMH is potent and deadly, a clear, colorless liquid used extensively in military applications as a missile and rocket propellant. It can cause damage to the liver and the central nervous system, and is also a cumulative carcinogen which may not cause problems until years of ingesting or inhaling the toxin. 

"False morel mushrooms are very toxic and should be completely avoided." said Dr. Cynthia Aaron, Medical Director (Michigan Regional Poison Control Center), Medical Toxicologist, Emergency Physician, adding that "the toxin produced by false morels is 'basically rocket fuel'. ...Ingested, the chemical affects the liver and central nervous system. Eat a little, and you suffer vomiting and diarrhea, but if you eat enough "you can die from continued seizures," Dr. Aaron said. "You can get pretty sick" Source.

Due to the volatility of the toxin, even the mere presence of fresh false morels in a poorly ventilated space can cause gyromitrin poisoning. 

To Eat or Not to Eat... What Do the Experts Say?

"The gyromitrin toxin can lead to right side abdominal pain, hepatitis and jaundice (yellow skin) within 48 hours, and in serious cases, increased bruising and bleeding due to loss of blood clotting factors."  Michigan Poison Control Center

"Another poisonous mushroom to be aware of this spring is the false morel, or beefsteak mushroom (Gyromitra esculenta). It is commonly mistaken for a true morel, and can have deadly results. Although some people have eaten this mushroom without illness, it usually causes vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps, and can cause kidney failure and death..." Source.

"Another group of poisonous mushrooms to be aware of this spring are the false morels. They include Gyromitra esculenta (also called beefsteak), Verpa conica, and Verpa bohemica. These are commonly mistaken for true morels because they look similar and grow next to morels. They can, however, have deadly results. Although some people have eaten these mushrooms without illness, they often cause vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps, and can cause kidney failure and death. The amount of poison can vary from mushroom to mushroom which leads people to think that if they ate one and had no adverse effects, they can eat others, which is not true.

"Each person’s body reacts differently to mushroom toxins. For example, you could eat beefsteak mushrooms 10 times and be fine, but become seriously ill or even die the eleventh time you ate them because those particular the mushrooms contained enough toxin to cause illness or death. Even breathing the vapors from boiling such mushrooms can cause illness. Gyromitra species are known to carry a carcinogen, which can also build up in the body over time" Source.

Personal Testimonies Warn Against Eating False Morels

People who thought they were experiencing food poisoning from morel mushrooms likely had inadvertently eaten false morels. Here are some personal testimonies of people who ate false morel mushrooms and regretted it. We've changed their names for the sake of privacy.

Cheryl shared this: "So, I tried the Gyromitra mushrooms for the first time last evening. I only had two small ones but about 3 hours after I ate it, I started feeling really sick. But I was sick all night and have been experiencing horrid muscle spasms."

Peter, who had eaten a Gyromitra told us: "Never again for me! I can tell everyone how painful this was! I was in the Emergency room. Don't take the chance!"

Paul stated: "I consider Gyromitra esculenta garbage mushrooms. They will make you sick, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. My brother has eaten them for a few years, then once, after eating them, all of a sudden, he got violently sick. Some people eat them thinking they know better. i know 100% by experience GYROS will make you sick. Why would you want to eat anything that you'd have to boil 3 times to make it "safe"? To me, it sounds stupid."

Sarah has this to say: "I had eaten them for a few years in a row with no problems, then the year I was pregnant I got really sick and almost miscarried due to eating them. I haven't eaten them since. I am fortunate to have my baby."

Josh said, "Many years ago I took the 'esculenta' (meaning "fit to be eaten") name seriously. After eating two meals of them, and a friend and I got very sick. It's cumulative as noted above. The third meal, my friend decided not to eat them and didn't suffer, but I sure did."

More Articles from Medical and Science Professionals
on the Dangers of False Morel Mushrooms

'Rocket Fuel' Toxin from Poison Mushrooms Sickens 10 in Michigan"The toxin produced by false morels is "basically rocket fuel," said Dr. Cynthia Aaron, medical director of the poison center in Detroit. It can cause liver damage and seizures..." 

A False Morel: Gyromitra esculenta - Toxicity: "Gyromitra esculenta is a little confusing when it comes to its ability to poison people.  Some people have eaten it and not felt any adverse effects; others have died soon after ingestion.  No one has figured out why it affects different people differently, but it is known that environmental factors play a huge role..."

ScienceDaily - False Morel Fungus"While false morels are deadly poisonous when raw, in some parts of the world they are considered edible (and delicious) if properly parboiled..."

The Great Morel - False Morels: "...Some of the known side effects are severe cases of diarrhea, severe headaches, vomiting, nausea, extreme dizziness, and YES even possible death. The Great Morel strongly suggests that you leave the false morel exactly where you found it. The Great Morel also suggests (as many others do) that even if you have no reaction yourself, not to offer the false morel to anyone else, especially to children and pregnant women."

FALSE MOREL (Gyromitra esculenta): "The truth is, however, that everyone born in the Nordic countries knows, especially in Finland, that the false morel is lethally toxic if eaten raw or incorrectly processed, and that even inhaling its fumes can cause poisoning symptoms. ...False morels should probably not be eaten at all in most parts of the world. Some sources also say that gyromitrin is likely to be a cumulative carcinogen, which may cause problems only after many years of ingesting or inhaling the toxin." 

Poisonous False Morel 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!"

So, You See, False Morel Mushrooms aren't Simply 'Demystified' as Some Would Like to Think

People who promote eating false morel mushrooms will sometimes recommend social media groups like "False Morels Demystified" to folks have reservations about consuming false morels or warn others against the risks eating them.

The grave reality is, those who think they've demystified these toxic mushrooms often have not considered all the scientific and medical information that counters their opinion that they're edible. They have no idea how any specific individual will react to the varying amounts toxins that any given false morel may contain.

They believe that simply preboiling them before preparing them to eat is all that's needed. But the truth is that if someone is near the cooking false morels, they can become sick from the inhaling steam, even if they don't consume any!  The toxins contained in false morels are strongly corrosive and therefore can severely irritates the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, among other symptoms.

It is greatly irresponsible to recommend that someone else take the same risk just because you've chosen to do so, and to belittle someone who cautions against eating them. 

If you're a person who chooses to take the risk and eat them, that is your choice. But it's very foolish to put others at risk by telling them that they are fine to eat! You do not know the effect they will have on another person as the symptoms will very and differ in intensity. We're concerned for others who could be put at risk over a mushroom. 

And why would someone want to eat something that needs to be prepared to perfection so they may not have an adverse, possibly fatal reaction to it? The welfare of others should always trump our personal opinions, wouldn't you agree?

Closing Thoughts

Always hunt mushrooms wisely, like your life and wellbeing depends on it, because it does! Never take any chances! Leave any mushroom that you're not 100% sure about alone. 

Save yourself sickness or even death by learning the important difference between true morels and false morel mushrooms. If you're new to the world of mushrooms and would like to experience foraging for morels, we'd highly recommend that you spend a bit of time brushing up on your mycology.

Disclaimer: This False Morel Mushrooms page is provided as a service to mushroom hunters. It is 100% your own responsibility to make sure that you know what you're eating. We do not take responsibility for the ingestion of any mushrooms that have any adverse effects. 

Footnotes

1 Monomethylhydrazine (mono-methyl hydrazine, MMH) is a deadly, volatile hydrazine chemical used as a rocket propellant (source). 


For further research:

  • Michelot, Didier, and Bela Toth. "Poisoning by Gyromitra esculenta–a review." Journal of applied toxicology 11, no. 4 (1991): 235-243.
  • Hendricks, H. V. "Poisoning By False Morel (Gyromitra Esculenta): Report Of A Fatal Case" Journal of the American Medical Association 114, no. 17 (1940): 1625-1625.
  • Braun, R., U. Greeff, and K. J. Netter. "Liver injury by the morel poison gyromitrin." Toxicology 12, no. 2 (1979): 155-163.


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