I’m wandering around in a field of moss and fallen beech tree debris just past Dock Bay on the Kepler Track in Te Anau. It’s springtime, the sun is out, and spotting mushrooms has become more of a challenge. Yet that’s not to say that there aren’t any mushrooms at all out and about these months.
I find many Gyromitra tasmanica, also known as ‘Southern False Morels’ growing at the base of a rotting tree stump. I’m taken aback suddenly as two massive G. tasmanica stand upright on a fallen trunk. The duo is nearly the size of my hands.
Southern False Morels are deadly. They aren’t like typical “true” morels, the ones chosen as a choice edible (Genus Morchella). Instead, these kinds of false morels contain the toxin gytomitrin, which produces monomethylhydrazine, or MMH, a leading chemical in rocket fuel.
G. tasmanica is thick, and the stipe is often pinkish and somewhat flattened. A few G. tasmanica that I have found branch at the top of the stipe near the cap as if two heads were to form. The shapes of morels vary greatly, they have deeply convoluted folds, and two never seem to be the same.
Another false morel that can be found in New Zealand is Gyromitra infula, also known as the elfin saddle, or hooded false morel. This fungus has a shape that appears saddle-like with lobes that protrude out above the fruiting body.
G. infula grows on rotting wood or hard ground. ‘Infǔla’ is Latin meaning, a heavy band of twisted wool worn by Roman officiants at sacrifices.
The first time I spotted G. tasmanica was off the side of the Abel Tasman Coast Track coming from Marahau.
The strange black, disfigured cap that looked like a crumbled-up piece of tarred paper made me think that the mushroom was old (deliquescent) and not “normal.”
I found that Southern False Morels, and morels, in general, typically grow where regenerative bush is after a fire. This would make sense given that numerous forest fires have occurred in Abel Tasman in the past.
Morels are also known to be found growing among landscaping bark, in gardens, near construction sites, and beneath fir trees.
Does New Zealand Have Any True Morels?
I have seen multiple photos posted on Facebook groups and online of native New Zealand Morels, although not much research has been done.
On the Occurrence of the Morel (Morchella esculenta, Pl.) in New Zealand
According to a reading given before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury on September 2nd, 1880 by J.B. Armstrong, he states,
“The object of this short paper is to place on record the discovery in New Zealand of the well-known European edible fungus, popularly known as the morel and called by botanists Morchella esculenta, Pers. About three years ago, a number of specimens of this plant were found growing in the Christ-church Botanic Garden, under the shade of some large trees of Eucalyptus globulus, Lmk.
At first, we supposed the plant to be a recent introduction, but as so many other European fungi are found in New Zealand, and as the morel occurs in Australia and in nearly all other countries, I now feel satisfied that we may look upon it as indigenous to our colony. The morel belongs to the sub-order Ascomycetes and to the tribe Elvellacei. British specimens are often 4 or 5 inches high, but all the New Zealand specimens I have yet seen were considerably smaller; their diminutive size, however, may have been owing to the poverty of the soil in which they were grown. The color of our specimens was a dull brown, whilst European ones are described as olive-colored.
In the arrangement published in Hooker’s “Handbook of the New Zealand Flora,” Morchella should precede Leotia. I think it is very likely that other Morchella species will eventually be found in this colony. In the forest districts of Germany the morel comes up abundantly after fires, and the collection of these plants was formerly so profitable that the country people are said to have set fire to the forests in order to hasten the production of these esculents. Whether the collection of morels will ever be profitable in New Zealand remains to be seen; but I trust that it will not be necessary to set fire to our beautiful native forests in order to obtain them.”
In Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running, it is mentioned that cultivating true morels involves a process of collecting spores via wax or paper bag, and inoculating wood or cardboard with a layer of ash. Stamets also mentions cloning morels from burn sites, growing out the mycelium to create spawn, starting a bonfire, then once cooled, mixing in the spawn. Once Spring comes around morels will pop up. It would be interesting to see native New Zealand species being cultivated in the future.
What Happens If You Eat a False Morel?
Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dizziness, headache, muscle cramps, bloating, and fatigue. If left untreated, people may go on to develop confusion, delirium, seizures, and slip into a coma.
How to Tell the Difference Between True and False Morels?
- True morels are hollow with no filler inside, whereas False morels will tend to have a cotton-like substance on the inside.
- False Morel caps are typically attached about halfway down the stipe.
- An edible morel’s stipe is attached to the bottom of the cap.
- With false morels, the stipe comes up to the top of the cap, with the top folding over on top of the stem.
Cutting morels in half is always a good practice to make sure other critters, like slugs, aren’t munching away already.
In the warmer months, Springtails come out in full force and eat away at Morels.
Overall, it is advised to never eat mushrooms in the wild that you are not 100% certain about. As the saying goes, all mushrooms are edible, sometimes only once!
Armstrong, J.B. Art. XLIV.—On the Occurrence of the Morel (Morchella Esculenta, Pl.) in New Zealand. , 2 Sept. 1880, paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/periodicals/TPRSNZ1880-18.104.22.168.44.