Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Debate over Reds - To Eat or Not to Eat

As early reports begin to trickle in on the boards, often people mention finding false morels or "reds." These are usually a form of Gyromitra brunnea or Gyromitra Caroliniana. Many people believe these to be actual morels. In fact, a few years ago, I saw an article in the paper showing a man holding a very large one (I think it weighed about 1 1/2 pounds) with the headline of something like giant morel. So even journalists often make the same mistake, but these are not true morels.

The question that everyone seems to ask me is whether or not these are edible. And at first I would reply with an adamant know and argue my case. However, after arguing my case for over a decade, I decided not to push it anymore. I do not eat them; however, I can see how any hunter, not having found a single morel, might be tempted to pick and eat false morels when they find a nice patch and nothing else.

There are two forms of mushrooms that often get mistaken for morels in Missouri. Gyromitras that I mentioned before and wrinkle cap verpas. Both can easily be discernedfrom true morels by cutting the stock lengthwise. If it is hollow it is a true morel. If it is hairy or has threadlike stuff inside it is a verpa. If it is solid or mainly solid with chambers, it is more than likely a Gyromitra. Since the verpas are not as common or at least harder to see and therefore less encountered, I won't talk about them. You can learn more about them at here

To the right is another reason why "reds" are so tempting as mycologist Jay Justice, who often shows up at Missouri Mycology Society forays, is seen taking photos of some big old G. carolinianas. So, are they poisonous? The only know deaths in the US from false morels were from ones found in the Rockies and to the west, probably the conifer false morel. However, ll mushrooms in this species contain a compound that breaks down with water to become MMH (monomethylhydrazine). It is hard to say how much of the toxin is in the mushrooms you find and how much you cook off. Also, individual toxin levels vary so one person may have a much higher threshhold.

Let me sum up the debate with some experts:

First, here is John Trestrail, retired chairman of the Toxicology Committee of the North American Mycological Association and managing director of Spectrum Health Regional Poison Centre in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He sees this type of poisoning in the upper midwest and sums up the danger.
"Persons who decide to continue this gastronomic gamble should have the number of their regional poison centers engraved on their eating utensils". (from
That is good advice for any bold wild mushroom eater. When it comes to mother nature, I prefer to fall on the side of caution.

Second here is what David Arora, author of one of my favorite guides, Mushrooms Demystified, has to say about the Gyromitras:
Several species...are dangerously poisonous raw, yet are eaten without ill effect by many people. The apparent contradiction can be explained by two facts (1) the toxin MMH is extremely volatile, i.e. it is usually removed by cooking or drying, and (2)there is a very narrow threshold between the amount of MMH the human body can "safely" absorb and the amount that will cause poisoning and even death. It seems foolhardy to risk eating the mmh-containing species, yet many people do...If you MUST try them, then ALWAYS either dry them or out (then rehydrate and cook them) or parboil them first and throw out the water, being sure not to inhale the cooking vapors (which contain MMH), then saute them. NEVER EAT THEM RAW and never eat a large amount. (page 799, 2nd ed.

Keep in mind that there are reports every year of false morels causing some ill effects on some. Though less serious, these cases of gastronomical distress can be no more pleasant and often lead those who have them to shun wild mushrooms altogether. So if you see the false morels first starting out, try to be patient and know that the real thing is only a week or so away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Error on the side of caution. I know several old farmers that do eat these, however, I have been told that you have to pick them at exactly the right time. Not a science I have time to learn. I walk past them, knowing the REAL morels are right behind them.