While morels are considered to be one of the most distinguishable fungi in North America, and are thought to be almost universally non-toxic, each year there are reported incidents of allergic, toxic and fatal incidents involving these mushroom-like delicacies. However, in most cases, reactions are not from morels, but from the morel’s evil cousins.
Many members of the mushroom family have relations that look like safe, edible mushrooms, but are deadly or disagreeable. Morel look-alikes are almost non-existent. However, there are a few fungi with which you should exercise caution. Unfortunately, these second cousins, known as “false morels,” tend to grow near, and in the same conditions as morels.
Perhaps the most frequently encountered morel imitator is the “brain mushroom.” The brain mushroom has a wrinkled, rather than pitted or honeycombed surface. Its dark brown stout body and bulbous, brain shape make it relatively easy to distinguish from true morels. It tends to “slime” quicker than morels due to its interior spore makeup, and does not have the same nutty taste as the morel. But if it is toxic, how will you know what it tastes like? In past centuries, many brain mushrooms were sold in marketplaces, cooked and consumed with little ill effect. However, for many people, there is no toxic or allergic reaction. Unfortunately, what was edible yesterday has been known to kill people the next day. For many, the symptoms are no worse than mild diarrhoea or upset stomach.
Harder to distinguish are look-alikes for the half-cap morel, whose tapered cap is held to the stem only by a band at the top of the stem, half-way up the cap. Again, though, this false morel has a wrinkled surface, rather than honeycombed.
The “Big Red” false morel is generally found in south eastern USA, and is distinguished by its bright colors. Most morels tend to be colored similarly to the leafy carpets in which they are found, which will help to distinguish “Big Red” from true morels.
Generally, even the imitators do not produce a severe reaction in most consumers of morels. Unlike many mushrooms with their extreme and deadly toxicity, false morels are more likely to cause upset, rather than intense reaction. Many people are spooked by the possibility of poisoning, and will shy away from any wild fungi. Some avoid any variation in size or coloration. But morels in poor conditions, or varying soil types, or even climatic conditions, will produce varying results. Some yellow morels, found growing in gravelly trailside soils in Manitoba, are of a gray color, while some growing in the willowy drainage ditch sites in Minnesota are tall and spindly, with an elfin morel (false morel) look. Classic black morels growing in the rich red soils of the Dakotas have taken on a reddish tinge like the “Big Red.” Yet, all are true, edible morels.
The key is to exercise both caution in picking, and moderation in consumption. Aside from a very few imitators, there is no need to fear morels.