Watoga Trail Report

A false morel, Gyromitra esculenta. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

If you enjoy eating false morels, you are going to love playing Russian Roulette

In the spring of 1955, a mother took her young son by the hand, leading him into the deep forest. She would teach him which mushrooms to eat and those not to eat, something her parents had passed down to her and her 12 siblings. A skill that became a necessity during the Great Depression.

She was working against time, having recently received a prognosis of terminal cancer. These foraging skills were something she could give her son that he may enjoy for the rest of his life – and indeed he does.  

And maybe, she thought, he would think of her each and every time he went into the woods in search of mushrooms – and yes, he does that, as well.

He remembers his mother stooping down beside him and pointing to different types of morels saying things like, “These black ones come up first in the spring, and I think that they are the best tasting, but your grandmother loves the big white morels that come up under the old apple trees out by the barn.”

At one point in their walk, they came upon a small stream bordered by a stand of pine.  As they walked among the pines the mother pointed down to a strange-looking mushroom that resembled a leathery brown brain and told the boy, “Remember this mushroom, it is one that only ‘we’ can eat.”

The mother would never experience another spring, passing away a few days before Christmas of the same year.

I was that young boy, and what my mother showed me that day became a precious memory as the years passed. Having been too young to understand the implications of what she had told me about a mushroom that I would later know as the false morel, I didn’t give it much thought until many years later.

Several years before my father passed away, he was visiting me from his home in Florida. It was late April, a time when morels are generally up. I drove him to a location in Hocking County, Ohio, where he and my mother had hunted morels many decades earlier.

We gathered a number of morels and came upon several large false morels, Gyromitra esculenta. Totally unprompted, my father said, “Your mother and her family could eat those, they called them liver mushrooms.” He went on to tell me that her family seemed to consume large numbers of false morels every spring, apparently with impunity.

I stored that thought away in long-term memory, promising myself to delve into it at some later point in time. Fast forward to the year 2020 and the aforementioned memory pierced my consciousness while mushroom hunting a few weeks ago.

The notion that some people can eat a mushroom recognized as poisonous with no ill effects, yet with others it kills, could quickly be repudiated as an old wive’s tale.

To get the facts about eating Gyromitra esculenta, we have to, once again, turn to science. There is a fair bit of research material available on Gyromitra; mushroom reference books, toxicology reports, CDC data, medical journals, and research abstracts from various universities.

Do they all agree?

No, but that is the world of scientific research where every new finding modifies the previous one. That is why medicines keep getting more effective and airplanes safer, but we still don’t know whether eggs are good for us or not.

Let’s start with a description of this curious and potentially lethal mushroom.

Gyromitra is a genus of mushrooms that can only be described as mud-fence ugly. To many, they look like a convoluted brain on a squat stalk. There are several species of Gyromitra in North America and Europe and some of these are potentially poisonous, even lethal.

They are so popular in Europe that several countries have enacted laws that forbid the sale of false morels to the public.
On the other hand, Finland has such a taste for them that they can be purchased fresh, cooked or canned.

They are often inadvertently collected when hunting morels (genus Morchella), often making their appearance at the same time as morels. And though Gyromitra esculenta is called a false morel, it is not in the morel family at all. Its resemblance to any of the morel species is vague at best.

The villain in this story is a compound called mon-omethylhydrazine (MMH), a volatile chemical used in rocket fuel. MMH is liberated from gyromitrin by the digestive system. Once in the body, either by ingesting the mushroom or breathing the cooking vapors, this toxin can damage the liver, kidneys, the central nervous system, and can lead to death. Current studies indicate that it may also be a powerful carcinogen.

The symptoms of gyromitrin poisoning are generally delayed from six to 12 hours. These include abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat and coma. In severe cases, death may result from profound liver and kidney damage.

A very informal survey that I conducted produced a number of anecdotes regarding the consumption of the false morel. Since the respondents to this survey are all friends, I can assure you of their impeccable credibility – of course!

One of the stories sent to me recounts an experience by a woman in Colorado who had collected, cooked, and served to her family what were likely false morels. Fortunately, no one got sick and that is not an unusual outcome the first time they are consumed. 

There were 71 cases of Gyromitrin poisoning in the U.S. in 2003 resulting in only one fatality. People often get away with eating cooked false morels once or twice, but on subsequent meals are poisoned. Why?

If the mushroom is eaten raw you will most likely be poisoned, but when cooked the toxin is greatly reduced. The reason for this is that MMH is volatile and is released to the atmosphere by cooking. That said, breathing in the vapors while cooking is just another form of ingestion.

Dose response is the relationship between the amount of a toxin ingested and the severity of its effects on the body. As with all toxins, this factor comes into play with the false morel. This may explain why some people throughout its growing range continue to eat it successfully despite its toxicity.

Let’s say you eat a tasty meal of cooked false morels with no apparent effects and decide to eat them again a few days later. The MMH (the toxin) from your first meal is now stored within your body and it is currently below the threshold limit for toxic symptoms.

Your second or third meal of cooked false morels may have different results. You may exceed your tolerance threshold and end up in the hospital enjoying a round of stomach decontamination, or, in a much worse outcome, you may die.

It must be pointed out that actual deaths from gyromitrin poisoning are rare, particularly when compared to Amanitin poisonings (Amanita phalloides or Amanita virosa) which have a mortality rate of up to 90 %.

My mother’s statement that her family could eat false morels has nothing to do with genetics. At least a genetic allele has not yet been identified that provides immunity from gyromitrin poisoning.

I do not know how her family prepared the false morels and that can have a lot to do with how much of the toxin is left in the final dish. Drying and boiling the mushroom greatly reduces the toxin. And as we already know, eating them raw will nearly always result in toxic effects.

It logically follows that the cooking method, portion size, and the frequency of eating Gyromitra is a major factor in poisonings.

On the botanical side, there is evidence that specimens from the western states here in the U.S. have lower concentrations of gyromitrin than those in the east.  So geography plays a role, as does the fact that the concentration of gyromitrin varies from mushroom to mushroom.

Bottom line – there is no perfectly safe way to eat Gyromitra esculenta.

Despite the popularity of the false morel in Europe and among some Americans, eating them is culinary roulette. Perhaps the appeal of eating false morels demonstrates a proclivity for risk-taking, such as free solo rock climbing, base-jumping, or being a veteran Fugu* diner, meaning the only one still alive.

The element of risk is an absolute necessity for some personality types – without it, there would be no challenge.

Author of many books on forensic medicine, John Trestrail is credited with humorously saying, “People who eat this mushroom should have the phone numbers of their regional poison center permanently engraved on their eating utensils.”

* Fugu, or Pufferfish, is a fish whose inner organs and skin contain a lethal toxin called tetrodotoxin, considered deadlier than cyanide. Sushi chefs in Japan must be certified by the government to prepare fugu for public consumption.

Next week in the Watoga Trail Report:

Forest Bathing, New Age malarkey or scientific fact?   

Ken Springer

Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms, Turner and Aderkas
Current Therapy in Neurological Diseases, Stommel and Watters
Mushrooms Demystified, David Arora
The Fungal Pharmacy, Robert Rogers

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