Mushrooms are back! Whether you're a fan or not, it's easy to see that mushrooms are experiencing quite a resurgence. You can chop ‘em up for a lovely frittata or sizzle them in sesame oil for a touch of flavor. If they’re edible, that is.
If you’ve been traipsing around the forests lately – I know I have, – you may have seen some caps popping out of the ground.
Unless you’re a professional forager or biologist, it’s best to leave those suckers in the ground. Why? Certain species, including a few elephant ear mushrooms, are toxic. The fatal kind, not the Britney Spears kind.
In this article, we’ll cover the ins and outs of the many elephant ear mushrooms and explain what makes them so toxic.
Please note that this article is meant to serve only as additional researched information on the Elephant Ear Mushroom. This article is not meant to serve as a guide to foraging or as medical advice, nor was it written by a botanist or a doctor. We recommend you consult an expert before trying to identify, forage, or use Elephant Ear Mushrooms for any purpose.
What is an Elephant Ear Mushroom?
So, "elephant ear mushroom" serves as more of an umbrella term (or moniker) for several mushrooms out there, some from different families!
Generally, most elephant ear mushrooms tend to have large caps with a wrinkled, skin-like texture. They usually range in color between brown and deep red. Of course, this is not always true, as you’ll soon see with the Rhodactis mussoides.
Most of the elephant ear mushrooms on this list are terrestrial and grow on or near hardwood trees. Most are false morels, which are the poisonous lookalike to true morels, a sought-after delicacy.
Here are the four most common elephant ear mushrooms.
This mushroom is also called the beefsteak fungus or ox tongue. Funnily enough, it doesn’t look much like an elephant ear. In my opinion, it looks a lot more like an ox tongue, but hey, who am I to name a mushroom?
This beefsteak mushroom can be found in North America, though it’s more common in Britain. Preferring temperate forests, it fruits in the warm season from mid-summer to early fall. These are weak parasitic mushrooms, meaning they grow on infected or diseased hosts.
Their resemblance to meat is frankly insane. They ooze red liquid when squeezed, have a marbled interior, and are colored like raw steak.
These mushrooms are edible, even when raw, though they still must be prepared safely. They belong to the Fistulinaceae family, unlike the other non-edible mushrooms on this list. These guys tend to be mistaken for other elephant ear mushrooms due to their similar appearance and wide cap.
And so begins the Gyromitra section of the elephant ear mushrooms! This mushroom has long been classified as a false morel: its hollow, chambered stem is a dead giveaway. They are both saprophytic and mycorrhizal, which makes them even cooler in my mind.
These mushrooms have a wrinkled and multi-lobed light brown cap with a wide stipe (or stem). They also have white seams on the edges of the cap. You may struggle to spot them in the woods as they’re quite stocky; the stipe is almost as wide as the cap!
Gyromitra brunnea can be found in the eastern and central U.S. come springtime. They grow near dead hardwood trees, as they feed on decomposing wood pulp and chips.
Gyromitra esculenta (which we’ll go into below) is their sister mushroom and very poisonous. It’s widely assumed that most mushrooms within the Gyromitra family are poisonous. Some foragers reported eating cooked Gyromitra brunnea in small quantities with little to no negative side effects. But that doesn’t mean you should eat them. So, to recap, they’re considered inedible and potentially poisonous, though the latter is questionable.
Arugably the most famous member of the Gyromitra family, this mushroom is nature’s red flag. With a harvest season ranging from April to October, G. esculenta grow in China, North America, and Europe.
Gyromitra esculenta is yet another false morel. Other common names include beefsteak, turban fungus, and brain mushroom. Its dark red or brown cap is wrinkled and folded, like a brain, and, unlike G. brunnea, its stem is not hollow. The cap is partially hollow, as can be seen when sliced in half.
Now, Gyromitra esculenta (and potentially all mushrooms in the Gyromitra family) contains a toxin called gyromitrin. This compound becomes monomethylhydrazine when consumed or heated. In case that name isn’t familiar, let me refresh your memory. Monometylhydrazine is commonly used as a propellant for rockets, and it’s a known carcinogenic.
Fun fact: these mushrooms can kill you if you inhale their fumes while cooking. Yes! You don’t have to consume these mushrooms in order to experience lasting effects, you just have to be in the same room as them.
Needless to say, it’s best to leave these mushrooms alone. Like, seriously alone!
Now, this is where it gets fun! The Rhoadactis mussoides is the only aquatic elephant ear mushroom on this list. That’s right, mushrooms can grow underwater! How cool is that?
These gorgeous mushrooms are huge – they can get up to 12 inches in diameter alone. They come in a variety of colors, usually ranging from green to blue, and they look like coral! They grow well in an aquarium or tank, but be warned, they prefer dim lighting.
This elephant ear mushroom is also called the huge disc anemone, gigantic flower coral, or giant cup mushroom. Best of all, they’re carnivorous! They can and will eat small fish by surrounding them. Terrifying, yet amazing!
Are Wood Ear and Elephant Ear Mushrooms the Same Thing?
No, they are not!
For one thing, they belong to completely different families. On top of that, they don’t even look alike. Wood ear mushrooms resemble light to dark brown ears when they’re still growing and fresh.
Wood ear mushrooms can be found in Australia, Europe, Asia, and Africa. They prefer growing in temperate and sub-tropical environments, usually forests, though they can be farmed too. They grow on deciduous trees and shrubs, usually an elder tree, either as a single unit or in a little colony. They’re wildly popular in China due to their funky texture and ability to soak up tons of flavor. In fact, they’re vital ingredients in hot and sour soup and mu shu pork. Researchers have conducted some studies on wood ear mushrooms' anti-tumor and antioxidant properties.
If you’re interested in cooking with them, you might find dried versions at your local Asian grocery. It’s much more difficult to source fresh wood ear mushrooms, so I’d stick to the dehydrated ones if I were you.
Elephant ear mushrooms are much bigger than wood ear mushrooms, and far less edible. Yet another great example of how important it is to triple-check your mushrooms before consuming them!
Can You Eat an Elephant Ear Mushroom?
There are so many different kinds of elephant ear mushrooms out there, but as a general rule, no, you can not.
The only truly edible mushroom in this list was the beefsteak mushroom (Fistulina hepatica). If you are going to eat foraged mushrooms, always clean and cook them before consumption. But, again, stay away from elephant ear mushrooms.
Let’s talk about the Gyromitra family of elephant ear mushrooms. This family contains the toxin gyromitrin, which when consumed or heated becomes monomethylhydrazine. Which is very poisonous.
While there are multiple species within Gyromitra that have low to nonexistent levels of the toxin, others are highly poisonous. Not enough research has been done to figure out why some are more poisonous than others.
However, we do know that Gyromitra esculenta is the most poisonous of all the Gyromitra. People have been eating them for thousands of years (yikes), but that doesn't mean you should! In fact, they’re still sold in some Scandanavian countries as murklor and lorchel. If you want to read more about consuming false morels, I recommend this article from Forager Chef, but again, please don’t eat them! These tiny mushrooms can kill you.
Here are some symptoms of poisoning to watch out for: vomiting, headaches, dizziness, diarrhea, and, worst of all, death. Even if you don’t get sick at first, the long-term effects of monomethylhydrazine are not worth it.
Is There a Coral Called Elephant Ear Mushroom? Is it the Same Thing?
Good question! Believe it or not, that coral-looking creature is actually a mushroom.
The Rhodactis mussoides are aquatic and thrive when placed in a tank or aquarium. They’re beautiful, with gorgeous coloring, and can grow to be huge. It does prefer shade, so try not to shine too much light on it.
Elephant Ear Mushrooms as a Medicinal Plant
Unlike reishi, elephant ear mushrooms are not known for their medicinal properties.
Morels, and specifically Morchella, are one of the most sought-after mushrooms. They’re difficult to grow commercially, which has only increased their popularity. Although Traditional Chinese Medicine has used morels for centuries, the West is finally catching up. Current research shows they may have antitumor properties which has only furthered the morel craze.
However, Gyromitra esculenta is a false morel, not a morel. They’re often confused for them due to their similar appearance. Their toxicity has halted any and all research done on their nutritional benefits. Since morels are medicinal, it’s clear why there’s such a high risk of poisoning. Foragers may go to the forests searching for the treasured morel, only to come home with Gyromitra esculenta.
If you decide to go morel hunting, consult a foraging expert, guidebook, or doctor before picking or consuming what you find. Fungi is no joke, y’all.
Mushrooms are one of the most beautiful and wild creatures that exist on this planet. However, with such wildness comes great responsibility.
If you are a budding forager (or forager-to-be), please make sure to do your research ahead of time and take all the proper precautions.
Mushrooms, elephant ears in particular, are beautiful things, but they are not to be messed with.