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What Are False Morel Mushrooms?

Meg Higa
Meg Higa

False morel mushrooms are a variety of mushrooms closely resembling the “real” morel, an expensive gourmet food particularly favored by French chefs. Collectively, they are found throughout much of the world’s temperate woodland climates. Certain types, in some countries, are a significant commercial crop. Many are poisonous, a fact that discourages amateur mushroom hunters to forage wild fungi on their own.

Real morel mushrooms, often found at the base of evergreen trees, usually have spear-shaped caps with irregularly patterned honeycomb ridges. There are commercial farms, but the majority of the annual crop is professionally harvested from the wild. Most of it is dried, to be reconstituted in water by cooks around the world. When cooking with morel mushrooms, most people choose to keep it simple and not mask its delicate flavor. It is almost never consumed raw because morels contain trace amounts of a toxic chemical called hydrazine.

Real morel mushrooms.
Real morel mushrooms.

The actual toxin in the mushroom is called gyromitrin. It readily reacts with water to break down into a hydrazine, one of the volatile ingredients in jet fuel. Several mushroom species in the genus classification Gyromitra are commonly named “false morel mushrooms.”

The effects of the poison on humans vary widely. Some people do not experience adverse effects. Symptoms, such as stomach cramps and diarrhea, might manifest quickly in others. Some severe reactions, even coma and death, may be delayed several days after ingestion. Fatalities from the consumption of false morel mushrooms are documented annually, primarily in the northern countries of Europe.

People may experience stomach cramps after the consumption of poisonous false morel mushrooms.
People may experience stomach cramps after the consumption of poisonous false morel mushrooms.

Regulations concerning the commercial sale or serving of false morel mushrooms differ from country to country. Most governments prohibit them in restaurants. One exception is Finland, which may harvest 50 tons or more annually of the false morel Gyromitra esculenta for both consumption and export. Finland’s government, however, issues strict guidelines on how they are expected to be handled and prepared. The instructions include boiling them several times in fresh water within a well-ventilated or open-air kitchen.

Without expertise in mushroom identification, it is ill-advised to forage for wild morels because of the possibility for mistaking one of the false morel mushrooms. Visually, most of them have globular caps with ridges which resemble the folds of a brain, rather than the more regular netting pattern of real morels. Some hobbyists of mycology, or the study of mushrooms, might dissect a suspected morel’s stem for definitive confirmation of the species before depositing it in a carry basket for supper.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are false morel mushrooms and how do they differ from true morels?

False morel mushrooms are a group of fungi that resemble the highly sought-after true morels but differ significantly in appearance and toxicity. True morels have a honeycomb-like structure with completely attached caps, while false morels have irregular, often wrinkled caps that are not fully connected to the stem. Importantly, false morels contain toxic compounds that can cause serious illness or death if ingested.

How can I identify a false morel mushroom in the wild?

Identifying false morels involves examining their cap shape, which is typically lobed or wrinkled rather than the honeycombed pattern of true morels. The cap attachment is also a clue; it's usually only attached at the top in false morels, creating a sort of skirt. Additionally, slicing the mushroom lengthwise reveals a chambered or cottony interior, unlike the hollow inside of true morels.

Are false morel mushrooms poisonous to humans?

Yes, false morel mushrooms are poisonous to humans. They contain hydrazine toxins, which can cause severe neurological symptoms, liver failure, and in some cases, death. Symptoms of poisoning can include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and muscle cramps. It's crucial to avoid consuming these mushrooms, as cooking does not reliably neutralize their toxins.

Can false morel mushrooms be safely consumed after proper preparation?

Despite some traditional practices that claim to detoxify false morels through thorough cooking or drying, it is not recommended to consume them. The toxins present in false morels, such as gyromitrin, can vary in concentration and are not always removed by cooking. The risk of poisoning remains high, and therefore, they should be avoided.

What should I do if I suspect someone has ingested a false morel mushroom?

If you suspect someone has ingested a false morel mushroom, seek immediate medical attention. Do not wait for symptoms to appear, as prompt treatment is critical. Provide the medical team with as much information as possible, including a description or sample of the mushroom consumed, to aid in accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Where are false morel mushrooms commonly found, and during what time of year?

False morel mushrooms typically grow in temperate regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. They often appear in the spring, around the same time as true morels, and are found in woodland areas, particularly under hardwood trees like oaks and elms. They can also emerge in areas disturbed by fires or logging, thriving in the rich, organic material left behind.

Discussion Comments


Eating false morels in Finland must be a little like eating fugu in Japan -- you kind of take your life in your hands every time you do it. I am just not that brave. I don't want to risk the consequences of eating something that has to be washed so many times before I eat it, to get the toxins out. Yuck.

I'll just stick to the ones I can occasionally find in the grocery store, or with dried ones. That way, I *know* what I'm getting. Mushroom poisoning is a nasty way to die.


I think I'd want an expert with me, even if I knew definitively what a morel looked like. The possible alternative is not pleasant to contemplate.

I would like to go with an expert hunter sometime to see what kinds of edible mushrooms are found in my area. I'm afraid most of the kind I've seen are the kind that pop up in the front yard after it rains. They look like burned baked potato halves. Even if they were safe to eat, I don't know that I'd eat anything that ugly!

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    • Real morel mushrooms.
      By: morchella
      Real morel mushrooms.
    • People may experience stomach cramps after the consumption of poisonous false morel mushrooms.
      By: Photographee.eu
      People may experience stomach cramps after the consumption of poisonous false morel mushrooms.