False Morel: Toxic Lookalike to an Edible Favorite

False morel mushrooms are the toxic lookalikes of the edible, true morel mushrooms (Morchella). There are a number of different species that fall under the name ‘false morel’, two of the most common include Gyromitra esculenta and Verpa bohemica.

The warped, irregular cap of false morel mushrooms is an incredibly distinctive feature. True morels also have an irregularly shaped cap, and these similarities can make foraging difficult for those seeking the tasty edible true morels. Foragers searching for the true morel mushroom should always be well informed of the different characteristics between false and true morels as a mistake could be fatal.

Three false morels amongst dried brown leaves. Each cap is a warm brown and has a slight sheen, and has the typical 'brain like' shape.
False morels (Gyromitra esculenta) | Photo by GLJIVARSKO DRUSTVO NIS on Wikimedia Commons

What Are The Active Compounds in False Morel?

False morel mushrooms contain a toxin known as gyromitrin. It’s a volatile toxin that hydrolyzes within the body to create Monomethylhydrazine (MMH). This has also been identified as a carcinogen and has a very toxic effect on the body. Symptom onset usually occurs several hours after consumption.

Like the fly agaric mushroom, the toxins in false morels are water-soluble. In some countries, people do still prepare dishes with false morels — although usually with a very thorough preparation method.

Scientists have noted that toxin levels seem to vary greatly between habitats, seasons, and mushroom maturity. So consumption of false morels is never recommended.

There is also a noted tolerance difference between different individuals. Some people have an immediate and very severe reaction, others may only be affected if a large portion is consumed.

False Morel Poisoning Symptoms

False morel poisoning usually involves a series of severe symptoms including nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping. In extreme poisoning cases, symptoms will include seizures, jaundice, and even death.

A wooden table with a selection of false morels in different sizes. At the center is a red sign in Russian, it has the species name along with a warning and a skull and cross bones symbol.
A Mushroom exhibition of false morels (Gyromitra esculenta) in Shevchenko park, Kiev, Ukraine | Photo by Аимаина хикари on Wikimedia Commons

Notable False Morel Poisonings

As the same suggests, the false morel is a lookalike to another group of mushrooms known as true morels. Fatalities were once common, however with improved medical care, false morel poisoning cases are not usually fatal.

Cultural Symbolism of False Morel

Because of the varying level of toxins in mushrooms from different geographical areas, countries have varying rules when it comes to selling false morels. They can be bought fresh in Bulgarian and Finnish markets, and frozen in Russian shops, however in many other countries they are banned completely.

Some areas within North America also still actively consume false morels, but it’s important to stress the irregularity with toxin levels, even after preparation.

A red checked tablecloth covered in false morels. A small sign has a warning and a symbol asking customers not to touch. They cost 10 euros per kilo.
False morels in a Helsinki market | Photo by Ilmari Karonen on Wikimedia Commons

What Does False Morel Look Like?

All morel mushrooms have a deeply ridged cap, however, the false morels tend to resemble a brain (or even a portion of uncooked ground/minced meat), instead of the delicate honeycomb of true morels.

In the Gyromitra esculenta false morel species, the cap color is usually a very deep red/brown, however brighter varieties do exist. The Verpa bohemica false morel species has a more yellow/orange hue.

Generally, all false morels have a solid or ‘filled’ stem, compared to the usually hollow stem of true morels. However, with any foraging identification process, several characteristics must be used for careful identification.

Where Does False Morel Grow?

False morels favor the rich soils of pine forests, but they can also be found under aspens and within deciduous woodland areas. They’re native to North America and Europe, but favor cooler, temperate climates within these ranges.

A single false morel that has emerged from ground with pine needles and nearby spring shoots. It has a very irregular cap with deep ridges. A mixture of a brain-shape and a honeycomb.
A false morel growing in a forest in Ukraine | Photo by Сарапулов on Wikimedia Commons


Appearing in the spring, false morel mushrooms are a fascinating species to observe when found in the wild. While some countries still have false morels for sale in markets, the general advice is to avoid consuming them because of their carcinogenic properties.

False morels may not have the charming appearance of fly agaric or glow in the dark like the Jack-o-lantern mushroom, but as with any mushroom species, they play a vital role in their surrounding ecosystem. And due to their toxic nature, they are best admired on a forest floor rather than a dinner plate.

Featured Image | Kruczy89 on Wikimedia Commons

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