by Sharon Greenberg
Spring is here, and morel fever has many of us in its grip. Though I hate to be the “Debbie Downer” of the season, we all need an occasional reminder to pick and prepare those finds with the appropriate caution. Here are a few general reminders regarding the common spring mushrooms.
First on the list is the morel itself. One of the most beloved of all wild mushrooms, it should never be eaten raw or partially cooked. Morels produce small amounts of hydrazine toxins. This toxin is heat-labile, meaning that it is destroyed with high temperatures produced during complete cooking. Also, be careful of where the morel is picked. For instance, morels found in old apple orchards that were treated with a now banned insecticide known as lead arsenate may have accumulations of lead and arsenic in their flesh. Morels found at old industrial sites would also be susceptible to having concentrations of heavy metals or other toxins. It has been reported that some people have reactions to the combination of alcohol and morels.
The mushroom most commonly misidentified for a morel would be a Gyromitra species. These are the so-called “false morels.” Experienced mushroomers are unlikely to mistake one for the other. But to an untrained eye they can look similar, especially if the growth is distorted. The best way to differentiate the two is to remember that any Morchella sp. will be completely hollow inside. Gyromitra sp have extra tissue inside, often looking like a cross section of a brain. I advocate that every morel for the pot should be cut in half lengthwise before consuming. This not only reaffirms the identification of a Morchella sp., but also roots out any critter that thinks that the hollow morel makes a great hiding place. Imaging the “yuck” factor associated with biting into a morel with a nice crispy centipede inside!
Gyromitra sp. produce a toxin called gyromitrin that is converted in the body to monomethyl hydrazine (MMH), which is a component of some rocket fuels. It can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, severe headaches, convulsions, and jaundice. Occasionally, it can cause coma or death, especially if consumed in large amounts. Some people claim that they can eat Gyromitra with no ill effects (some recommend odd or elaborate cooking techniques,) but there is too much risk to advocate eating them.
Verpa bohemica is also associated with low levels of the gyromitrin toxin. It is often called the “early morel” because it generally arrives 1-2 weeks prior to the true morels, and last throughout the true morel season. It can easily be confused with the half-free morels Morchella punctpes and Morchella populiphila. Verpa bohemica has a cap that is wrinkled, but hangs complete free of the stem, i.e. it is attached only at the top. The half-free morels have a cap that is attached to the stalk half way up the length of the cap. Again, cutting the mushroom in half is essential for complete identification. Verpa bohemica will have cottony wisps of tissue inside the stem. Morchella are completely hollow. To be fair, some people do eat Verpa sp. without problems. But others may experience GI upset or loss of muscular coordination. It is not known if the toxins will accumulate in the liver over time.
Finally, remember that some mushrooms that are usually found in the summer and fall may poke their heads out early. Be especially careful of Galerina marginata (previously G. autumnalis), commonly classified as a “LBM’s”. I recently found out that it can be found in the spring, when I thought we were safe from it. But no-o-o, this one sometimes arrives early, and it’s deadly! It is found growing on wood or buried wood. It has a brownish, sticky cap, a ring on the stalk, and yellowish to rusty-colored gills. The spore print is rusty brown. It can be confused with Flammulina velutipes (velvet foot,) and Armillaria mellea (honey mushroom.) Both of these can also be found year ‘round, but they have a white spore print.
Galerina marginata produces a toxin called amanatin. The same toxins produced by some species of deadly Amanita. Symptoms of severe GI distress usually start six to twenty-four hours after ingestion, but then subside. The person will feel much better for about a day, and may even be discharged from a hospital. But, after another day or so, the liver and kidneys begin to fail with possible death from multi-organ failure or internal bleeding in three to four days. There is no antitoxin available, so depending on the type of care the person gets, there is a 10% to 50% chance of dying from this type of poisoning!
Don’t let “Morel madness” get the best of your common sense. Follow a few simple rules and you should be safe; always completely identify every mushroom that you eat; completely cook all wild mushrooms; eat only fresh, undecayed mushrooms; don’t eat mushrooms from possibly contaminated sites; and try not to consume too many at one time. If you have never tried a certain mushroom before, only eat a small amount, and wait at least 24 hours before ingesting any more of it. Some people have allergic reactions or other sensitivities to even the most common edibles.
Dick Grimm’s best advice was “If in doubt, throw it out!” Always good words to heed.
Happy and safe hunting to all!
P.S. Here are some excellent on-line sites that give much more in-depth information.