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
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 is chambered and the stalk is stuffed with a cottony white tissue. 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.

Size

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

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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.

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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.

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Photo of a false morel cut in half, showing cottony material filling in stalk
False Morel Cut in Half
When you slice a false morel down the middle, the cap is chambered and the stalk is stuffed with a cottony white tissue. True morels are completely hollow.
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.

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

Because false morels have definitely caused deaths, we cannot recommend that you eat them. 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 (a chemical used in rocket fuel).

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.