For me, May on PEI means Mayflowers and Mushrooms, and I was happy to find both on last week! This interesting-looking fungus is commonly called False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta group) and is a bit early this year: I usually find these while collecting Fiddleheads, which are just barely starting to appear in my usual spots.
Guidebooks often warn would-be fungi foragers about False Morels as inedible and dangerous look-alikes of True Morels. I’m no mushroom expert, but I find this inaccurate on both counts.
First, ‘False Morel’ is a bit of a misnomer, as this mushroom doesn’t really look much like any of the true Morels. (Morels are prized edible mushrooms that I haven’t yet found on PEI, but I’m hopeful this will be the year!). Second, Gyromitra esculenta is edible but requires special and careful preparation, and so isn’t a great mushroom for beginners. It’s useful to note that the name ‘False Morel’ is also applied to several other mushrooms, and so confirming which genus and species you are talking about is important. For this post, I’ll use ‘False Morel’ to refer to the mushroom of the Gyromitra esculenta group shown in the photo.
This False Morel contains a compound called Gyromitrin which is both water soluble and easily airborne. If ingested, it gets metabolized into a highly toxic chemical (mono-methyl-hydrazine, or MMH for short) that is used as rocket fuel to propel spaceships into Earth orbit and beyond. This is not something you want in your body.
Fortunately, Gyromitrin’s water-solubility is the mushroom forager’s friend. False Morels can be detoxified though boiling in generous amounts of fresh water changed two or three times. Remember that this toxic chemical is also easily airborne, and so the process needs to be done outside or in a well-ventilated area. These mushrooms are commonly eaten (and even sold) in parts of Europe and here in North America. I’m told their flavour makes the preparation worthwhile.
That said, their edibility isn’t without controversy. MMH exposure is cumulative, meaning it can build up in your body over time as you eat more mushrooms. For the quantity most foragers eat, this likely isn’t an issue but there’s not a lot of research on it. Additionally, the amount of Gyromitrin in the fungus varies among species and even between different populations of the same species, so you never really know what you are getting. Finally, there’s some evidence to suggest sensitivity to MMH varies among individuals.
I haven’t personally tried these mushrooms, but if you want to I encourage you to do your research first. The Facebook group False Morels Demystified has some good references, experienced foragers, and expert admins, and is a good place to start.
I commonly find this False Morel on PEI under White and Black Spruce (Picea glauca and P. mariana) and White Pine (Pinus strobus), often when there is also a Poplar (Populus tremuloides) component. It’s a very cool part of PEI untamed!