If You See This Brain-Like Life-Form In The Forest, Experts Warn You Should Stay Away

Image: Kruczy89/CC BY-SA 3.0

If you ever come across a strange, brain-shaped organism on the forest floor, it’s unlikely to get your appetite whirring. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that the alien-like life form is considered a delicacy in some parts of the world, including in certain regions of the United States. However, experts advise against consuming the frightful food – and they have good reason to do so.

Image: Geran de Klerk

This curious life form is found in, amongst other places, the conifer forests of America. It’s mostly found in mountainous woodlands, like in the Cascade Ranges and the Sierra Nevada in the northwest of the United States. However, the eagle-eyed among us may be able to seek it out in suitable habitats all across the North American continent.

Image: Artur D

The sandy soils that are present in conifer forests provide fertile ground in which this ugly little organism can flourish. The thing might appear between April and July, and can even sprout in thawing snow. However, while it may be found in abundance one year, it could be entirely scarce the next.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: James Forbes

The brain-shaped organism seems to prefer ground that’s been previously disturbed. As a result, it’s commonly found in forest clearings, plowed areas and along the sides of roads. And while some foragers are eager to get their hands on the alien-like life form, they do so at their own peril.

Image: Alexander Pytskiy/Getty Images

For those who wish to avoid the potentially deadly thing, there are some things to pay attention to. You see, it’s fortunately easy to distinguish thanks to its peculiar appearance. As a type of fungus, it generally stands at just under four inches tall and almost six inches wide. However, its unique characteristics make it pretty eye-catching.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Akchamczuk/Getty Images

That’s because the strange entity sports something of an oddly shaped cap. This is smooth when the fungus first emerges from the ground. As it matures, however, its top becomes gradually more and more wrinkled. This happens until it’s rather gruesome in appearance, resembling a certain part of the human anatomy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: TYNZA/Getty Images

The body part that the fungus is often compared to is the brain, and it’s not hard to see why. Its corrugated cap closely resembles sulci – the name given to the distinctive grooves found in the cerebral cortex. And the similarity is all the more vivid, given the fact that the organism comes in shades of dark brown and even red.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: TYNZA/Getty Images

Because the fungus can grow to become wider than it is tall, it can often resemble a brain perched on a natural pedestal. That plinth is what’s known as a stipe. This comes in a creamy-white color, giving a distinct contrast between the bottom and top halves of the organism.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Urmas Ojango/CC BY-NC 2.0

Given its resemblance to a certain bodily organ, the brain-like fungus isn’t the most appetizing thing to look at. However, its bizarre appearance hasn’t prevented the organism from becoming a delicacy in some parts of the world. Regions where it makes a popular snack in parts of Europe and America’s upper Great Lakes.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Jay Mantri

Consumption of the brain-shaped fungus is particularly popular in the Nordic nation of Finland. The country has no shortage of the coniferous woodlands that the organism prefers as its habitat. In fact, the landscape of Finland is an impressive 78 percent forested, so there’s plenty of places where the organism can grow.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Thomas Millot

Besides having ample opportunities to flourish in Finland, the peculiar fungus may also form part of the country’s cuisine thanks to the popularity of wild food in the nation. According to a study from The Natural Resources Institute of Finland, 66 percent of Finns go foraging one or more times annually. This would make it one of the most popular pastimes in the country.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Farsai Chaikulngamdee

According to the same study, collecting various types of berry was the most popular form of foraging in the country. That’s because 57 percent of Finns apparently claimed to pick fruits like lingonberries, bilberries and cranberries every single year. Having said that, mushrooms and herbs are also popular to forage.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Charlotte Coneybeer

In Finland, an “everyman’s right” dictates that every citizen there is allowed to pick food anywhere it grows. The exception, however, is on protected nature reserves and in private yards. Ultimately, though, it’s fair to say that gathering one’s own food in the wild is part of the Finnish lifestyle.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Andrei Lavrov/Getty Images

Given the Finnish affinity with foraging, it might come as little surprise that even the brain fungus is firmly on the menu. In the nation, it appears in all manner of dishes. These include in omelets, or simply sautéed in butter. Alternatively, the stuff can be added to béchamel sauce or used to fill pies.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Ilmari Karonen/CC BY 3.0

However, even in Finland – where it’s legal to sell and purchase the strange-looking fungus – their consumption is not without controversy. That’s because eating the organism carries with it significant risks. As a result, Finnish law dictates that the delicacy must be accompanied by cautions of its danger and proper preparation guidance when sold.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Travis/CC BY-NC 2.0

Nevertheless, it seems there’s been a huge appetite for these brain-like fungi in Finland over the years. For instance, according to the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture, the amount of these organisms sold in the country in 2006 was around 36 tons. And in 2002 the Finnish Food Safety Authority estimated that the annual consumption could soar to hundreds of tons when the harvest was plentiful.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: hekakoskinen/Getty Images

However, while the Finns may throw caution to the wind in consuming these wrinkly fungi, their neighbors in Sweden seem to have a less blasé attitude towards them. That’s because the country’s own Paul Svensson caused a media storm in 2015. That year, the chef cooked a dish using the delicacy on a television show.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Eugenegg/Getty Images

Mushroom specialist Monica Svensson was particularly outspoken about her namesake’s use of the ingredient. In fact, according to an article published on the website of the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet in 2015, she slammed the move as “irresponsible.” And the chef was quick to react to her criticism.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: tomasztc/Getty Images

Paul Svensson was forced to apologize for his cooking blunder to both the expert and the viewers of his TV show. However, he insisted that he had been safely cooking the brain-like fungus for years. According to Aftonbladet, he said, “Of course, it is not my purpose to poison the Swedish population. But my cooking is based on cooking knowledge that has been inherited.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Phungus/Mushroom Observer/CC BY-SA 3.0

But while chef Svensson was eager to express his competence when it came to cooking the peculiar delicacy, he promised that he would no longer use the ingredient in his recipes. He admitted, “Yes, it will be a sad farewell.” However, he promised, “I will not serve it anymore, but try to find other alternatives.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Alexander Pytskiy/Getty Images

Monica Svensson responded that she was “extremely grateful” that the chef had taken her complaints seriously. And by that point, she had moved her focus to another one of Sweden’s celebrity chefs. This was Per Morberg. Not long after the controversy with Paul Svensson broke, Morberg had posted a picture of him posing with a large pile of the contentious fungus on Facebook.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Dmitriydanilov/Getty Images

Monica Svensson was not impressed with Morberg’s social media post. She felt that while chefs might know how to prepare the fungus properly, the important steps to make it safe may be missed by the general public. As she told Aftonbladet, “At the far end of the chain of recipients there are people who have not really heard what [the chefs] have said and done.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Staffan Widstrand/Getty Images

Svensson wasn’t alone in her concerns over the use of the brain-shaped fungus in cooking. In fact, the National Food Agency in Sweden strongly advises against the consumption of the organism. They join the authorities of other nations – such as Germany and Spain – that have made steps to discourage the eating of the delicacy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: tomasztc/Getty Images

So, what is this strange, organ-shaped fungus? Well, it’s officially known as Gyromitra esculenta. However, it’s also attracted a number of evocative nicknames including “brain mushroom,” “elephant ears” and “turban fungus.” They belong to the “false morel” group of fungi, named in reference to their similarities to the Morchella genus, which are considered “true morels.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Eugenegg/Getty Images

Gyromitra esculenta was originally detailed by a mycologist named Christian Hendrik Persoon in 1800, who initially named it Helvella esculenta. But in 1849 the fungus was instead placed in the Gyromitra genus by fellow fungi expert Elias Magnus Fries. This category’s terminology comes from the Greek words for “round” and “headband.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Alexander Pytskiy/Getty Images

While the origin of the Gyromitra genus name seemed to fit the brain-like mushroom, it’s the second half of the fungus’ moniker that has proved problematic. That’s because esculenta is derived from the Latin word esculentus, which means “edible.” However, as we’ve covered, there’s some debate over whether the fungus should be eaten.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bernard Spragg. NZ

Given the fact that it’s potentially deadly when consumed uncooked, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many experts advise against the consumption of Gyromitra esculenta. When ingested, the active agent in the fungi – something called gyromitrin – reacts with water in the body to form monomethylhydrazine (MMH). This, as it happens, is an extremely toxic compound.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: danilsnegmb/Getty Images

The MMH toxin is said to mainly upset the nervous system and the liver. On occasion, however, it can also impact a person’s kidneys. As the poisoning sets in, sufferers may begin to experience symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting. Furthermore, several hours after eating the fungi, sore heads, tiredness and dizziness can follow.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: tomasztc/Getty Images

However, poisoning caused by Gyromitra esculenta can sometimes be much more dangerous. In severe cases, further symptoms may develop within one to three days of consumption. These include kidney failure and liver toxicity which could lead to coma, respiratory arrest, circulatory collapse and – after five days to a week – death.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Akchamczuk/Getty Images

In the case of a suspected gyromitrin poisoning, an individual should seek treatment right away. In the early stages, care involves monitoring the balance of fluids and electrolytes in the body. Further treatment may also be required to deal with symptoms affecting the nervous system or seizures. The prognosis for most patients is good, providing they get proper care.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Alexander Pytskiy/Getty Images

While poisonings still occur from eating Gyromitra esculenta, it would seem that fatal episodes are rare these days. Research from Poland in 1971 claimed that the fungi was responsible for almost a quarter of annual mushroom-related deaths. However, it would seem that global mortality rates have decreased since the middle of the 1900s.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: hekakoskinen/Getty Images

It’s believed that levels of toxic gyromitrin in Gyromitra esculenta actually vary in different locations. For instance, reports of being poisoned after consuming the mushroom are relatively rare in North America and Europe’s west. However, intoxications appear to occur on a more frequent basis to the east of Europe and in Scandinavia.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: hekakoskinen/Getty Images

But while Gyromitra esculenta poisonings are said to be somewhat commonplace in Sweden, lethal reactions are apparently rare. In fact, there were no reported deaths in the half-century between 1952 and 2002. Similarly, Gyromitra intoxications are scarce in Spain, but the death rate there is as high as one in four.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Akchamczuk/Getty Images

The low rate of Gyromitra poisonings in Spain has been put down to the way the mushroom is traditionally prepared in the country. That’s because it’s dried out before it’s eaten. And that’s not the only preparation technique that people use in an attempt to lower the toxicity of the fungus.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Alexander Pytskiy/Getty Images

While drying is a recognized method of removing the gyromitrin from so-called brain mushroom, boiling also lowers its toxicity. It’s generally recommended that the fungus is cut up into small pieces before being parboiled in a pair of five-minute intervals. There should be no less than three times as much liquid as mushroom during this step.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Lebrac/CC BY-SA 3.0

After the first boil, the mushroom should be rinsed and then added to a fresh pot for a second boiling. This method draws the gyromitrin out into the broth, meaning it must be discarded between each boil. It’s also important to complete this process in a well-ventilated room, as the vapors released during cooking can also be toxic.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Akchamczuk/Getty Images

Even when Gyromitra esculenta is dried, experts nonetheless suggest that it should also be boiled before consumption. You see, the process won’t completely remove all the hazardous gyromitrin from the mushroom. As a result, eating the fungus repeatedly is not advisable, given that toxins could accumulate in a person’s body.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Eugenegg/Getty Images

In adults, the estimated lethal dose of gyromitrin is around 20 to 50 milligrams. This equates to about 0.9 to 2.2 pounds of mushrooms. For kids, the deadly dose can be as low as ten milligrams or as high as 30 milligrams. This would require consumption of between 0.4 and 1.3 pounds of the fungi. It’s not clear if body mass is responsible for this difference, or other factors such as metabolic and enzyme activity.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Mantonature/Getty Images

A French study from 1995, meanwhile, has come to its own conclusions. According to the work, Gyromitra esculenta specimens found at greater heights were found to have lesser concentrations of poison than those collected down low. There’s also some evidence to suggest that the mushrooms found to the west of the North American Rockies are less potent than those situated east.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Santos Jiménez/Getty Images

So, when it comes to Gyromitra esculenta, it seems that there are a lot of factors that play a part in how dangerous the mushrooms may be to eat. Circumstances such as where they’re found to how they’re prepared can mean the difference between life and death. With that in mind, it’s worth asking yourself if such a “delicacy” is really worth the risk.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT