The big red false morel is reddish brown, with a convoluted, brainlike cap and a whitish stalk that is chambered inside. It grows singly or in groups in mixed woods. Late March–May. The cap is convoluted, brainlike, reddish brown outside, buffy tan inside; the cap margin is fused to the stalk; the interior is chambered. The stalk enlarges toward the base and is whitish, the texture grooved to smooth; it is chambered inside (not hollow). The spore print is clear to white. Spores magnified are elliptical, smooth.
Lookalikes: Missouri has at least two other species in genus Gyromitra, plus several other types with wrinkly, lobed, or folded caps.
- Gabled false morel (Gyromitra brunnea) is more lobed and saddle-shaped than brainlike, and it has a cap margin that is not fused to the stalk.
- The snow false morel (G. korfii, syn. G. gigas) resembles the big red false morel but has a very thick stem and squarish, blocky, tightly adhered cap. Cap color varies from tan or brown to rusty. It seems to be less common in Missouri.
- Elfin saddles (Helvella spp.) have caps that resemble saddles or ears, with lobes, folds, flaps, or wrinkles. The stems are often ridged or fluted. The color and form varies a great deal in this large genus, and some species look like false morels.
- Some people confuse true morels (Morchella spp.) with false morels, though spending just a little time comparing them and reading descriptions should prevent any confusion. All Missouri true morels are completely hollow inside.
Cap width: 1½–7 inches; cap height: 2–10 inches; stalk length: 2–5 inches; stalk width: 1–4 inches.
Habitat and Conservation
Grows singly or in groups, on the ground, in mixed woods, often near dead trees or stumps.
Poisonous/not recommended. Potentially toxic mushroom. Mushroom aficionados debate the safety of false morels. Government agencies and health authorities must advise caution. Here are some of the many factors to consider:
- There are several closely related species known to contain the chemical gyromitrin, a potentially deadly toxin. These species are not always easy to tell apart. The species that has caused deaths (G. esculenta) occurs to our north and has not (so far) been found in Missouri, but it looks quite similar to Missouri’s false morels.
- The amount of gyromitrin in a false morel varies by the different species and, within each species, by local genetic strain. You cannot tell how much gyromitrin a false morel contains just by looking at it.
- The amount of gyromitrin that ends up in a dish varies by cooking technique and thoroughness of cooking. Also, different people may eat more or less mushroom in a serving.
- Different people have different sensitivities to gyromitrin. For example, while many Missourians have eaten the false morel G. caroliniana for years with no ill effects, some people do have a bad reaction to it.
- Finally, research is ongoing. Gyromitrin, including its presence in different mushroom species and its effects on humans, is not completely understood.
For these reasons, we cannot recommend eating any false morel mushrooms.
Mushrooms exist most of the year as a network of cells (mycelium) penetrating the soil or rotting material. When ready to reproduce, the mycelium develops mushrooms, which produce spores that, once released, can begin new mycelia elsewhere. For at least part of its life cycle, this species is a saprobe, “eating” decaying materials such as dead leaves or wood. It also might be mycorrhizal, spending part of its cycle connected to tree roots in a relationship benefiting both tree and fungus.
“There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters!” The edibility and toxicity of this Gyromitra species is hotly debated among mushroom hunters. A lookalike species in states north of Missouri is certainly poisonous and has caused deaths. If you're considering eating any wild mushroom, learn all you can about it, make sure your ID is absolutely certain, and be sure to cook it thoroughly.
We cannot recommend that you eat false morels. If you nevertheless choose to do so, they must be thoroughly cooked in a well-ventilated room, since the fumes will also contain their toxin (similar to a chemical used in rocket fuel).
It’s possible to enjoy mushrooms just for their unique, bizarre, even beautiful looks. False morels can be breathtakingly huge.
Fungi and their fruiting bodies, mushrooms, are part of our natural environment. Their importance in forest ecosystems is monumental. Besides nourishing forest trees through symbiosis, they are also the wood rotters of the natural world, recycling nutrients back into the soil.
Mushrooms are a lot like plants, but they lack chlorophyll and have to take nutrients from other materials. Mushrooms are neither plants nor animals. They are in a different kingdom — the fungi. Fungi include the familiar mushroom-forming species, plus the yeasts, molds, smuts, and rusts.
Always be cautious when eating edible mushrooms. Be absolutely sure of the ID, and only eat a small amount the first time you try it to avoid a reaction..