Is It Safe To Eat Morels Harvested From Old Apple Orchards?

leadarsenatewildfoodismDo your secret morel mushroom patches include old apple orchards?

I ask not because I’m desperate to know where they are (though I will accept your tulip poplar/elm spots!), but because you may wish to consider leaving those particular morels alone for 2 reasons…

1) Lead
and
2) Arsenic

Ouch… those don’t sound so good…

You see, throughout the 1900’s, lead arsenate pesticides were heavily applied to millions of acres of apple orchards to combat the codling moth (a practice recommended by our very own USDA!  Good lookin’ out for us…).

Lead and arsenic used in pesticides do not readily break down in the soil.  Therefore, both of these heavy metals can currently be found in the soils of apple orchards where morels grow.

A preliminary study, published in 2010, was conducted to seek answers to the following 2 questions:

  1.  Do yellow morels (Morchella esculenta) growing in lead and arsenic treated orchards in the Northeastern United States concentrate lead and arsenic from their growing habitats?

    And if so…

  2.  Are these toxic elements found in the fruitbodies of morels at levels that could pose a threat to the health of consumers (1)?

Here are the results from the study:

  • There are statistically significant positive correlations between the lead in the soil and the lead in the mushrooms as well as between the arsenic in the soil and the arsenic in the mushrooms.
  • 94% of the arsenic in the tissues of the morels analyzed for arsenic was found to be in a toxic, inorganic form.  Inorganic arsenic, in comparison to organic arsenic (bound to carbon), was identified in 2007 as a poison and determined to be a human carcinogen.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that inorganic arsenic is associated with cancer of the bladder, liver, lung, and skin.  The agency concluded that exposure to inorganic arsenic can also cause skin inflammation, keratoses, peripheral neuropathies (diseases of the nerves of the extremities), and peripheral vascular diseases (diseases of the arteries and veins of the extremities), anemia, diabetes, and an increased production of free radicals that alter mitochondrial activity and genetic information (2).
  • While the highest levels of arsenic that were found were substantially lower than the minimum risk level (MRL) set for acute duration oral exposure, the levels significantly exceeded the MRL for chronic duration oral exposure to inorganic arsenic.  Meaning, eating arsenic-containing morels once in a while may not be as bad as eating them everyday over a prolonged period of time.

Here’s a big one:

  • According to the researchers:  “The most striking results to come out of this study are the levels of lead found in the morel fruitbodies and the magnitude of the correlation between the lead in the soil and the lead in the fruitbodies of M. esculenta.  We would feel uncomfortable consuming morels from those orchards in our study that were heavily sprayed, and would not serve them to children.”
  • Lead poisoning can severely damage the brain and nervous system, as well as the stomach and kidneys.  The Tolerable Daily Intake levels for lead have not been set because no quantity of lead is considered safe for consumption.

Well, there ya have it.  Pretty startling, huh?  Morel mushrooms with a side of lead and arsenic.  That doesn’t sound too appetizing.  Of course, no study is perfect, so it’s difficult to generalize these findings to morels growing in all old apple orchards.  The results are worth considering, though.

And really, I’m not saying that you absolutely must forgo all apple orchard morels, but that it’s good to keep this information in mind before you make a certain area your coveted spot.

Also, it’s important to note that many old apple orchards are overgrown today with trees and vines, seamlessly blending in with the surrounding woodlands.  Therefore, just because the area looks like a pristine, wooded area doesn’t mean that your morels aren’t apple orchard morels.

My advice?  Forage responsibly and conscientiously… always with an incredible amount of intention (and reconsider eating ANY food with any amount of synthetic pesticide sprayed on it or its soil… in other words, choose foods that grow in beautiful conditions).

For information on finding and identifying morel mushrooms, click here.


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Want to connect with naturalists in your area?  Some of them may even be morel mushroom experts!  Check out Learn Your Land to learn more!

Thank you!
Adam Haritan

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4 comments

  1. Do you think it would be ok to take the stem butts of these morels and attempt to grow them elsewhere? In your opinion…

  2. Hi Marly,
    Great question, and thanks for asking. Morels and other mushrooms generally reproduce through spores. In the case of morels, spores are released from reproductive structures on their caps known as asci. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that stem butts, “transplanted” to another location, will produce additional fruiting bodies. Perhaps if there are spores on the stem butts, then I could see this happening. Morel mushroom cultivation, while certainly possible, is rather difficult and requires particular circumstances that are hard to manage. That’s why most morels on the market are foraged from the wild, rather than grown in cultivation. I hope this information helps to answer your question! Thanks again for asking!

    Take care,
    Adam

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