It is fairly easy to identify true morels in the wild. They usually don’t reside in locations close to many other poisonous mushrooms. However, there are a few look-alike morels that ARE poisonous that can be mistaken for actual morchella mushrooms.
A false morel mushroom encompasses a few species of mushrooms that contain a toxic compound called monomethyl hydrazine (MMH). This compound can cause various illnesses in humans which build in strength over time.
There are several different species that are considered to be false morels. These species include but are not limited to Gyromitra esculenta, Gyromitra caroliniana, as well as mushrooms in the Helvella and Verpa species.
There have been reported deaths from people eating mushrooms in the Gyromitra and Verpa species. Additionally, MMH may very well have carcinogenic effects over a long period of time.
No mushroom should be eaten solely on the basis of what is read here. There is no confirmed evidence of how poisonous different forms of false morels actually are!
For this reason, and to be safe, it is very important to understand how to identify fake morels. To do so, we must first understand what different types of true morel mushrooms exist.
Types of Morel Mushrooms
There are currently more than 60 species of morels worldwide. I covered most types of morel mushrooms in the article just linked. For the sake of keeping this article to the point, I will quickly touch on some of the more common morels you will likely run into.
Morchella esculenta – Yellow Morel
The yellow morel is the most popular among morel lovers due to it’s amazing taste and higher availability. It is easier to find yellow morel mushrooms and for this reason they are often referred to as ‘common morels’.
The caps of yellow morels looks like a honeycomb. There are pits surrounded by ridges. These morels are completely hollow on the inside from top to bottom.
Morchella elata – Black Morel
The black morel is another type of morel mushroom you may stumble upon in the north American region. The black morel is very similar to the yellow morel in regards to looks. However, as the name suggests, the black morel has a darker black tinge on the ridges of its cap.
Black morels are most common in areas that have experienced recent fires as these mushrooms thrive off of burnt plant matter.
Morchella semilibera – Half-Free Morel
The half-free morel mushroom is different than the common morel in the fact that the stem extends much longer than normal morels. The cap of the half-free morel is much smaller with more shallow ridges than its more common counterpart. The general color of this mushroom is a yellowish brown.
Morchella tomentosa – Gray Morel
As described by the name, these morels are defined by their grey color. However, they can also display a blonde color as well. They also have tell-tail hairs along the base of their stems.
In fact, grays or fuzzy foot morels, are simply an immature yellow morel!
How to Identify False Morel Mushrooms
Let’s cover some tips to help you distinguish false morel mushrooms from true morels. There are some features that morel look-alikes will generally exhibit. There may very well be more features to look for in fake morels but these are the main ones to get you started. And, when in doubt, chuck it out!
- At first glance, if the mushroom seems excessively lobed and wavy, as well as bulges outwards, than you are most likely dealing with a false morel
- The cap of a false morel mushroom is irregular. It may look as if the mushroom has been “stepped on”
- A false morel mushroom’s cap will not be attached to the top of the stem. There will be a gap between the cap and the stem
- Lastly, when in doubt, always slice the mushroom in half and check to see if it is hollow. You are dealing with a fake morel mushroom if the insides contain cottony fibers or tissue.
Morel Mimicking Species
This odd looking mushroom has a cap that looks very brain-like. The cap almost looks like a pile of dark brown worms. The stem of this false morel is very thick and has a yellow tinge.
Gyromitra caroliniana – Carolina false morel
These mushrooms fruit early after snow melt. Some people actually eat this mushroom but we would not recommend doing so here as the studies on it are not promising.
This mushroom has a very thick white stem with an extremely wavy cap on it.
Gyromitra infula – Hooded false morel
This mushroom is also known as the elfin saddle. It has a dark reddish-brown cap that takes the shape of a saddle (such as you would put on a horse).
Verpa bohemica – early false morel
The early morel has a pale, yellowish thimble-shaped cap. The cap looks similar to a brain. This fake morel looks like the bell morel but ‘squished’.
Verpa conica- Bell morel
These false morels are also known by the name ‘thimble fungus’ due to the cap looking similar to that of a thimble. The cap of the bell morel is smooth and bell-shaped. The margin of the cap hangs freely away from the stem.
What Happens If You Eat A False Morel Mushroom?
Many people believe that these false morels can be made edible with the correct preparation. However, I do not recommend you try this! The long term effects of these mushrooms on the human body are still not entirely known.
MMH affects the central nervous system, the liver, and even the kidneys. It is known that MMH accumulates in the body over time. This buildup can lead to serious illness and or death.
Specifically, gyromitra esculenta poisoning, has lead to diarrhea and vomiting hours after consumption. These will often lead to dizziness, headache and lethargy, delirium, coma, and possibly even death about a week after consuming the false morel mushroom.