Thursday 9 May 2019

Clarification of So-Called "False Morels" - The Greatest Fungal Falsehood

Gyromitra esculenta

Today we're talking about so-called, "false Morels".

Let's start with the fact that "false Morels" really do not exist. This is a common name that is applied to a number of species across several genera, which include Verpa, Gyromitra, and Helvella.

What does that mean, in practical terms?

It means that the term is confusing and is only one step away from using the term "mushroom" to describe a species of fungus.

Let's stop using this disingenuous term, and start calling things what they are.

Helvella are, generally, pretty easy to distinguish from most species of Gyromitra, which are also quite easy to distinguish from Verpa.

Verpa can be more tricky to tell from Morchella punctipes or Morchella populiphila, but the features that separate them are not too difficult to pick up.

So, what is wrong with calling them "false Morels"? 

This term is a detriment to learning, and its use should be stopped. The fewer people that use the term, the faster is will cease to exist.

Beyond the imprecision of the term, it also reinforces, in the mind of the person using it, that there is some sort of connection between the Morchella species which they seek, and these other genera of fungi.

It also implies intent, on the part of the fungi, to deceive us into eating them, by trying to look like Morchella. I would hope that we are all well aware that fungi do not have the faculties to perpetuate such a broad deception, nor would they have impetus to do so.

This is merely humans anthropomorphizing fungi, yet again. Let's stop doing that.

The worst part, however, is that there are two (perhaps three) species of Gyromitra which can be acutely toxic - that means that they can make you very, very ill and cause long-term damage to your body. They may even kill you, if eaten in very large quantity.

How, you may ask, does that have any bearing on why the term "false Morel" should be put to death?

Because it muddies the waters, so to speak, regarding edibility of the other species and genera which are saddled with this misnomer.

Out of the dozens of species to which the term is applied, only two or three are acutely toxic. The rest can be eaten with simple cooking, as you should be doing with Morchella, anyway.

That's right, folks - those mushrooms that you've been given all of this conflicting edibility information about are perfectly edible, with the exception of a few species.

Basically, you've been lied to by well-meaning folks.

About "false Morel" edibility

Let's go it genus by genus.

  • Verpa
    Verpa are edible as Morchella spp., with the same caution: They should be considered toxic unless thoroughly cooked.
  • Helvella
    Not all species of Helvella have noted edibility information, and they do contain small amounts of the toxin monomethylhydrazine (MMH). Yes - the "rocket fuel" component that you've heard so much about.

    MMH is a thermolabile toxin, which can be cooked out, especially in the small quantities which are found in Helvella spp.

    Dehydration can also help decay the MMH, but all Helvella should certainly be cooked after rehydration.
  • Gyromitra
    Gyromitra is the "bad boy" of the Pezizales. These are the real "rocket fuel" mushrooms... or at least a few of them are. They contain a prodrug to MMH, called gyromitrin. That means that the gyromitrin is metabolized into monomethylhydrazine.

    Of all North American taxa in this genus, only Gyromitra esculenta and Gyromitra ambigua contain enough gyromitrin to be acutely toxic.

    While G. esculenta and G. ambigua are still eaten in much of the world, doing so requires a bit of preparation, which includes soaking sliced/chopped mushrooms in a large volume of cold water, bringing that to a boil, dumping the water, and repeating the process. That is a bit more work than many want to put into dinner; but, if you decide to do so, please make sure that you read up on the detoxification process.

    The other species in the genus contain little gyromitrin, and some don't seem to have any at all, including G. caroliniana.

    These species can be eaten with no more preparation than Morchella or Verpa spp. require.

So, why should "false Morels" die?

That imprecision that we discussed earlier makes the whole process of identification a bit of a mess, because so many people have hugely different ideas of that a "false Morel" is, and why they should be scared to eat it.

In truth, for the most part they shouldn't; but, it is difficult to be confident in something when such ambiguous terms are applied to it.

The first step in learning about these wonderful organisms is to be able to identify them, to species (or genus, at least) so that you can quell your fear and accept information on each species.

So, let's stop using "false Morel", and start going with Gyromitra, veneratinge Verpa, and hollering Helvella, instead, so that we can all feel more confident in our discussions and learning about these amazing species of fungi. 

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