False Morels

Gyromitra spp. (false morels); Helvella spp. (elfin saddles)

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Image of a false morel
People debate whether the big red false morel (Gyromitra caroliniana) is safe to eat. We cannot recommend eating it.
MDC Staff
Poisonous
Not recommended/not edible
Family

Various families in the phylum Ascomycota (sac fungi)

Description

False morels have wrinkled, irregular caps that are brainlike or saddle-shaped. They may be black, gray, white, brown, or reddish. The big red false morel, Gyromitra caroliniana, is a large false morel with a reddish cap. Other names include "elephant ears," "Arkansas morels," and "brain mushrooms." False morels differ from true morels in obvious ways — if you take your time and observe carefully. In false morels, the cap surface has lobes, folds, flaps, or wrinkles, but it does not have pits and ridges like a true morel. You might say false morel caps bulge outward instead of being pitted inward. Also, when you slice a false morel down the middle, the cap and stalk are chambered.

Similar species: True morels are completely hollow. The time of year will also help you tell them apart: In Missouri, true morels are only found in spring, while false morels are found in other times of the year as well.

Size

Height: 2–8 inches, but varies with species.

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Photo of a false morel cut in half, showing chambered, not hollow stalk
False Morel Cut in Half
When you slice a false morel down the middle, the stalk is chambered, not hollow. True morels are completely hollow.

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Photograph of a false morel in the genus Helvella
False Morel (Helvella sp.)
This false morel is in the genus Helvella. In false morels, the cap surface has lobes, folds, flaps, or wrinkles, but it does not have pits and ridges like a true morel.

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Photograph of 2 false morels with one split in half
False Morel Split In Half
When split in half, false morels do not have completely hollow stalks. This species is Gyromitra esculenta, a false morel not found in Missouri, but it shows structural features that help you distinguish this group from true morels.
Habitat and conservation

False morels are found in spring, summer, and fall on the ground in woodlands. It is safest to consider all false morels toxic. While some people have enjoyed eating them for years and may even consider them a favorite wild mushroom, several types of false morels have definitely caused serious illness and death. Whether they will sicken you or not depends on cooking techniques, type of mushroom, and your own sensitivity. It’s best to avoid them.

image of False Morels distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Poisonous/not recommended. Missourians continue to debate the safety of false morels. Government agencies and health authorities must advise caution. Here are some of the many factors to consider:

  • There are several closely related species known to contain the potentially deadly toxin gyromitrin. They are not always easy to tell apart. The species that has caused deaths (G. esculenta) occurs to our north and has not been found in Missouri, but it looks quite similar to Missouri's false morels.
  • The amount of gyromitrin in a false morel varies by the different species and, within each species, by local genetic strain. You cannot tell how much gyromitrin a false morel contains just by looking at it.
  • The amount of gyromitrin that ends up in a dish varies by cooking technique and thoroughness of cooking. Also, different people may eat more or less mushroom in a serving.
  • Different people have different sensitivities to gyromitrin. For example, while many Missourians have eaten the false morel G. caroliniana for years with no ill effects, a few people do have a bad reaction to it.
  • Finally, research is ongoing. Gyromitrin is not completely understood.

For these reasons alone, we cannot recommend eating false morel mushrooms.

Life cycle

Mushrooms exist most of the time underground or within rotting logs as a network of cells (mycelium) connected to tree roots, rotting material, and the soil. When ready to reproduce, the mycelium sends up the “mushroom” aboveground — this is the reproductive structure. Spores are produced in these structures and are released to begin new mycelia elsewhere. The mycelium of a mushroom can live for decades.

Human connections

We cannot recommend that you eat false morels. If you nevertheless choose to do so, they must be thoroughly cooked in a well-ventilated room, since the fumes will also contain their toxin (similar to a chemical used in rocket fuel).

It's possible to enjoy mushrooms just for their unique, bizarre, even beautiful looks. False morels can be breathtakingly huge.

Ecosystem connections

Fungi are vitally important for a healthy ecosystem. Many form symbiotic relationships with roots of many trees, helping them to survive. Fungi also feed on decomposing materials, such as fallen leaves and logs, cleaning the forest and helping nutrients to cycle back into the soil.