So-called "true" morels are considered among the most delicious wild mushrooms. Several species occur in Alaska, though the exact number is unknown. Those who study and hunt them often distinguish the different types of true morels by their color, which ranges from cream to brown to almost black. All have spongy, conical caps with what's commonly described as a honeycomb or net-like "ridges and pits" texture.
Certain other types of mushrooms — dubbed "false" morels — vaguely resemble true morels and they too appear in springtime in similar forest habitats. Morel hunters are urged to learn how to tell them apart, because false morels are dangerously poisonous to humans. Eating them can lead to serious illness, even death.
Because of the dangers, mushroom experts suggest novice hunters accompany an experienced picker. If collecting on your own and unsure whether the mushrooms you're picking are true morels or not, leave them in the ground.
Fortunately, true and false morels are easily distinguished, once a person knows what to look for. Here are some basic guidelines, gleaned from a variety of sources, including Harriette Parker's pocket field guide, "Alaska's Mushrooms: A Practical Guide" and two articles that can be found online, "Harvesting morels after wildfire in Alaska 2005" and "Morels: a morsel after the fire." All three sources include details and helpful illustrations.
The caps of true morels have honeycombed or "ridges and pits" textures and those caps are "fused" or intergrown with the stem, forming a single unit. Verpa mushrooms (sometimes called "hooded" morels) have a wavy or wrinkled cap that sits like a skirt on the stem. Gyromitras, meanwhile, have lobed or brain-like caps; though the color can vary, many have red to reddish-brown caps, a sure sign they shouldn't be harvested.
When cut open, true morels form a single hollow chamber from the top of the cap to the bottom of the stem. The stems of false morels are solid and when sliced open, the mushrooms have a multi-chambered appearance.
Apparently some people can eat "false" morels without becoming seriously ill, but researchers warn that they can have a harmful cumulative effect even for those who initially seem immune to their toxins.
Symptoms may include headache, nausea, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Severe poisoning may lead to high fever, convulsions or even death.
A note of caution on eating true morels: Experts warn that no wild mushroom should be eaten raw; they should always be cooked. And because some people are sensitive to mushrooms, even those considered edible, it's recommended that people eating morels for the first time consume only a small portion and wait a day to be sure the mushroom doesn't cause intestinal distress.