As I write this, it is spring in North America, and we are in the middle of morel hunting season. Morels are delicious and one of the safer mushrooms for which to forage. But there is one thing that you must be aware of if you go hunting for morels. If you want to stay safe, you must learn how to differentiate between a true morel and a false morel.
What Is a False Morel?
False morels are closely related to true morels; they are part of the same genus — Morchella.
True morels tend to grow in the spring, under hardwood trees, especially ash and elms. See our guide on How to Find Morel Mushrooms for more morel-hunting tips and details.
False morels grow at the same time, and in the same areas, which means that if you are looking for morels, there is a pretty good chance that you will come across false morels in your search.
At one time, false morels were considered edible. While many people have eaten false morels without suffering any ill effects, others have developed symptoms of mushroom poisoning.
Cooking them alleviates the toxicity in most species, but recent evidence indicates that there may be long-term health risks with false morel species.
These risks are most closely associated with two species of false morels: Gyromitra Esculenta and Gyromitra Ambigua. Many mushroom hunters in Europe consider false morels outside of those two species to be edible once cooked.
That said, unless you are an expert, it is best to avoid all false morels.
Note that, if eaten raw, even true morels can cause minor stomach upset, so never eat a morel of any type without cooking it first.
How to Tell the Difference Between a Morel vs False Morel?
Note, if you are not familiar with morels, be sure to run your finds by an expert before eating them. The North American Mycological Association (NAMA) has local chapters across North America and is a good place to find people in your area who are knowledgeable about wild mushrooms.
And always carry a good field guide when you are looking for mushrooms. We are currently recommending Mushrooming Without Fear: The Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Safe and Delicious Mushrooms.
Two excellent mushroom field guides — if you can find them — are Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America and the National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. Both are out of print, but you may be able to find a used copy on Amazon.
There are five key differences between true morels and false morels:
1: Look at the Texture of the Caps
True morels have pits and ridges in a honeycomb pattern. False morels will have wavy, folded caps.
Photo by Alan Rockefeller
2: Are the Caps Hollow?
A true morel will be completely hollow inside, whereas a false morel will have cottony fibers, or may even be completely solid.
Photo by Jay Hollinger
You may wince at the thought of cutting your beautiful morels, but remember, slugs and other critters often crawl up into the caps, so you will have to cut them in half anyway to clean the caps out.
3: Confirm that the Stems Connect At the Bottom of the Cap
In a true morel, the stem will join at or near the bottom of the cap, whereas in False morels, the stems will join at the top of the cap. The cap will look almost like a rumpled skirt hanging from the top of the stem.
4: Are Your Morels Symmetrical?
A true morel will almost always have a nice symmetrical shape to it, whereas false morels have a wavy, uneven look. Bulges and folds will stick out, and the false morel may even look like someone stepped on it.
Photo by Alan Rockefeller
5: Run a Spore Test
While it is not convenient, the surest way to tell a true morel from a false morel is to run a spore test.
True morels have light, cream-colored spores. False morels have dark, almost black spores.
To run a spore test, place your morel on a piece of paper and put a bowl over it to keep any breeze from hitting it.
Leave the morel alone for a few hours, and remove the bowl.
If your mushroom is a true morel, you will see light-colored spores on the paper; if it’s a false morel, you’ll see dark, peppery spores on the paper.
Morels are one of nature’s culinary delights. And once you learn about the characteristics of false morels, it s easy to avoid the bad ones.
If you follow the tips in this article, you will reduce the risk of mishaps. But remember, you always take risks when foraging for mushrooms. Be sure to show your morels to an experienced mushroom forager before eating them if you haven’t been morel-hunting before.
For more morel hunting tips, see our article How to Find Morel Mushrooms.
If you are lucky enough to find some true morels, see our guide on how to cook morels here.
To learn more about foraging for mushrooms in general, check out our article Mushroom Foraging — The Ultimate Guide.
And click here to learn more about poisonous mushrooms and how to avoid them.
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