The Key Distinctions Between True Morels and Their Toxic Look-Alikes

The Key Distinctions Between True Morels and Their Toxic Look-Alikes

Seraiah Alexander
Seraiah Alexander
March 28, 2024
4 min

Morels are some of the most sought-after spring mushrooms in North America. Ranging from Michigan down to the Pacific coasts of California, these delicacies are prized for their distinct flavor and texture. Morels are rich, earthy, and nutty and taste amazing simply sautéed in butter. They are a popular culinary ingredient for chefs and mushroom foragers alike. 

There are several different kinds of morel mushrooms that you may run into: black morels, yellow morels, grey or common morels, half-free morels, and more. There are 18 different morel species around North America. Each has its own distinct features, but they all belong to the Morchella genus and are admired for their unique appearance and gourmet quality. 

While the fruiting bodies of morels are some of the easiest mushrooms to identify, there are a few toxic fungi that look somewhat similar.

How to identify a true morel


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Identifying true morels requires that you know several key characteristics. Real morels have a honeycomb-like structure on their cap, giving them an unmistakable distinction compared to their false look-alikes. Furthermore, the cap is completely attached to the top of the stem. It will not be partially separated or hang off of it, but instead form one complete structure.

When sliced lengthwise, it is entirely hollow in the center. Compared to false morels, these features should set a true morel apart. These morel doppelgangers tend to be filled on the inside and lack the iconic honeycomb cap that sets a true morel apart. 

Mushroom spore prints

Additionally, the morel spore print will appear cream to light yellow. When making a spore print, place the fruiting body on dark paper and cover it so air flow doesn’t knock around those precious spores. Leave for 6-12 hours, depending on your fungi, and spores should gather around the specimen.

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Where morels grow

In the wake of wildfires, the relationship between morel mushrooms and the rejuvenating forest floor becomes particularly fascinating. These fires create a nurturing ground for morels to thrive the following spring with the nutrient-rich ash left in their wake.

This phenomenon is especially prominent in North America, where morel enthusiasts eagerly anticipate the post-fire season to forage. The morel’s affinity for recently burned areas has become a significant aspect of foraging culture, with mushroom hunters mapping out wildfire sites as potential goldmines for the next foraging season. This symbiotic relationship underscores the morel’s role in the forest’s cycle of rebirth and regeneration.

There are a few inedible and poisonous-look alikes you should remember before going morel hunting. If you are a beginner mushroom hunter, you should always be confident in your mushroom identification whenever you harvest wild mushrooms.

Though morels are relatively easy to identify, you must familiarize yourself with any similar-looking poisonous mushrooms. Some of these mushrooms contain toxic compounds that can make you seriously ill or even lead to death. We’ve compiled a list of some of the most common false morels you may encounter when searching for the real deal so that you can know the difference and be prepared.

False morel (Gyromitra esculenta)

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The false morel is one of the most common morel look-alikes. It has a similar wrinkled cap, though it also carries many key characteristics that set it apart from the real deal. Unlike real morels, the false morel is not hollow on the inside but instead filled with a cottony tissue.

Their copper-colored caps are more wrinkly than honeycomb-like, which clearly indicates their differences from real morel caps. Beginners often mistake these mushrooms for morels, which can have severe consequences if they are consumed since they contain a toxic neurotoxin called gyromitrin which decomposes in the stomach to produce monomethylhydrazine (MMH). More mild side-effects of this toxin include severe gastrointestinal pains, while in more severe cases could lead to seizures or death.

Big red (Gyromitra caroliniana)

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Wikimedia Commons: Ron Pastorino

Image source: Ron Pastorino via Wikimedia Commons

The big red, also known as the Carolina false morel, looks somewhat similar to a true morel, particularly the black morel, because of its dark reddish-brown cap. Unlike a true morel, its cap it is redder in hue and has a brain-like appearance.

When cut open, it is not hollow in the center. Similarly to the false morel, the big red contains the potentially deadly toxic gyromitrin, so it should be avoided at all costs.

Early morel (Verpa bohemica)

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The early false morel, otherwise known as wrinkled thimble cap, shoots out of the ground sooner than true morels. Its appearance is strikingly similar to true morels at first glance, though they have some key characteristics that set them apart.

Upon closer examination, you’ll notice that the early morel has a more wrinkly cap hanging over the stem, unlike real morels, which are attached to the stem. This mushroom also contains gyromitrin and can be deadly if consumed in large enough quantities.

Bell morel (Verpa conica)

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Also referred to as the thimble morel, this species resembles the true morel because of its conical cap, overall shape, and color. However, unlike a real morel, its cap has a noticeably smoother texture and droops over the stem rather than being directly affixed to it.

When cut open, it is filled with a cottony pith. While many other false morels are considered highly toxic, the bell morel is not generally regarded as poisonous. However, it is recommended to avoid because there is not consistent research on its safety for consumption.

Avoiding false morels for safe hunting

Next time you go mushroom foraging in the spring, look out for these tasty edible mushroom species. Morel mushroom hunting can be a fun experience for anyone involved, regardless of age or expertise. Unlike many other mushrooms, morels can be relatively easy to distinguish once you’re entirely familiar with their unique traits.

However, you should always double-check to make sure the mushrooms you found aren’t actually a poisonous dupe. Even if morels are generally easy to spot, you should always take time to verify your finds.

Like with all wild mushrooms, if you are not 100% certain that the mushrooms you harvested aren’t the real deal, don’t take any chances. As exciting as it is to find morels for the first time, you should never compromise your safety and consume something that may be hazardous to your health. Especially when considering all of the species of false morels out there.

If you’re still not confident, check with an experienced mycologist or mushroom forager. Alternatively, you can turn to mushroom identification applications and communities online. When in doubt, don’t consume!


Seraiah Alexander

Seraiah Alexander

Content Editor

Table Of Contents

How to identify a true morel
False morel (Gyromitra esculenta)
Big red (Gyromitra caroliniana)
Early morel (Verpa bohemica)
Bell morel (Verpa conica)
Avoiding false morels for safe hunting

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