Hunting for morels? Watch out for toxic look-alikes

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Consider the elusive morel mushroom.

To avoid getting sick, it’s important to learn the difference between Gyromitra esculenta and Morchella esculenta.The Michigan Regional Poison Control Center has receieved 15 complaints this year. Pictured are morel mushrooms.

Lucky enough to find one and you’ll be treated to a gourmand’s delight, a sweet, beefy delicacy some compare with caviar or truffles.

Pick the wrong one and you could die.

Talk about a risk-reward ratio.

“You need a trained eye,” said Joseph Ryan, a longtime morel hunter from Swartz Creek. “It’s nothing you want to fool with.”

The problem is Gyromitra esculenta, a mushroom that looks like a morel but contains an ingredient you’ll never find in “bon appetit” – monomethylhydrazine.

The chemical, which is a component of rocket fuel, destroys the liver by rupturing its cells, said doctors.

Fortunately, the number of such poisonings is lower than normal this year.

The Michigan Regional Poison Control Center, based in Detroit, has received 15 complaints this year.

It received 23 last year and 46 the year before that.

That’s the good news. The bad is that this year’s cases seem more severe, said Dr. Cynthia Aaron, the center’s medical director.

Two of the 15 cases this year required hospitalization, while four other victims had to be treated at emergency rooms, she said.

“It seems more potent,” said Aaron. “People are getting sick.”

She isn’t sure why the injuries are more serious this year.

The Gyromitra esculenta, also known as false morels, could be more toxic this year or people’s adaptability to them has changed, said Aaron.

Some people can eat false morels without falling ill, she said. Others may eat them for years without incident but then suddenly develop an aversion to them through a change in their metabolism.

The low number of cases this year may have to do with a late start to morel-picking season, said hunters.

The season normally runs from mid-April to mid-June.

The poison center didn’t get its first report of a poisoning until early May.

“It was a slow start,” said Dan Danks, a Macomb Township resident who leads mushroom searches around the state.

To avoid getting sick, it’s important to learn the difference between Gyromitra esculenta and Morchella esculenta, which is a type of morel.

And, to do that, it helps to be a mycologist, which is a fancy word for someone who studies fungi.

Absent that, pickers should remember that morels are pitted and ridged, with stems linked to the cap near its bottom.

The poisonous ones are wrinkled with stems joining the cap near its top.

If you mess up and accidently eat one of the bad ones, you could begin to feel sick 6 to 48 hours later, said doctors. You could experience nausea, cramping, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, bloating and fatigue.

The poisonings this year occurred in the following counties: Alcona, Alpena, Bay, Berrien, Grand Traverse and Gratiot, according to the poison center.

It’s no coincidence most of the counties are in northern Michigan. That part of the state is one of the best spots in the country to pick morels, according to mycologists.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell