For many Michigan outdoors persons, few single words evoke so much excitement and anticipation in the spring as the word morel. As a confirmed obsessive compulsive hunter, fisherman and mushroom hunter, it was not by chance that, upon my recent retirement in November of 2007, my wife and I elected to relocate to the Mesick area in Wexford County. In addition to abundant fishing and hunting opportunities, the pleasant small town of Mesick is the recognized morel mushroom capital of Michigan.
Originally a “downstater” or “fudgie” residing in the Livingston County area, I began my prolific mushroom hunting career years ago after stumbling over numerous morels and puffballs during deer scouting and turkey hunting excursions in southern Lower Michigan. One taste of these forest delicacies sautéed in real butter and I was hopelessly hooked! At this writing, snow still blankets the northern Michigan woodlands. As I sit in my portable ice shanty constantly jigging for slab-sized bluegills, perch and specks on nearby Lake Cadillac, my thoughts wander through the mushroom woods. Dam#$!!, I just missed another bite! I am truly looking forward to this spring in the northern Michigan mushroom woods! For those beginning and novice mushroomers similarly afflicted, I offer some instruction and food for thought.
Know Your Mushrooms!
Morels and other mushrooms are fungi and some fungi can be hazardous to your health if eaten or even touched! Fortunately, morels have physical appearance characteristics that make them fairly easy to distinguish from most other mushrooms. The deeply pitted, oval to conical, nearly white to yellowish brown to dark gray cap with a lighter, hollow, cylindrical stem or hollow, expanded base section are unique morel characteristics. There are two notable exceptions. The early morel and the bell morel, often referred to as “false” morels, have distinctive separate bell-shaped, also deeply pitted caps attached like a parasol to the tip section of a separate, often long slender stalk. “False” morels can be additionally identified and distinguished from “good” morels in two other ways.
First, examine the exterior of the morel. The conical to round, irregularly pitted cap of the “good” morel is fused with the stalk at the base of the cap creating one single module. The second test involves, after cutting the base of the stalk off at ground level, simply looking through the bottom of the cut stalk of the mushroom or looking at a cut cross section of the morel. Concerning “good” morels, there should be one single cavity from the base of the stalk to the tip of the cap. The general rule is: “If the interior of the stalk and cap is NOT one single cavity, DO NOT EAT IT.”
“Good” morels as well as false morels may both have multiple clustered stalks but the separate cap chamber and the separate hollow stalk chamber often stuffed with cottony threads are dead giveaways concerning the identity of the “false” morel. Most false morels appear early in the season along with the popular black morels. Although some people seem to be initially unaffected by eating “false” morels, the gastrointestinal ill effects often set in after repeated consumption as the toxins contained in these mushrooms are stored cumulatively over time in one’s body. Every person’s tolerances to these toxins are different. Avoid these morels!
There is another caution to note in reference to the popular black morels found predominantly in forested areas in northern Michigan. Black morels are considered by many to be our best edible mushrooms. Older and over mature specimens are much darker black in appearance and may also cause gastrointestinal distress when eaten, especially when combined with alcoholic beverages. Exercise caution when gathering black morels and avoid picking the older, darker specimens. Black morels are often hard to spot on the leafy forest floor as their caps often barely poke their heads above the leaf litter. The larger, safer white or tan morels that appear later in the spring around Mother’s Day are much easier to spot and are the morels I prefer to gather.
For more information on positive identification of “good” morels and other edible fungi, I strongly suggest that you obtain a copy of A Field Guide to Mushrooms North America by Kent H. McKnight and Vera B. McKnight. This excellent publication is part of the Peterson Field Guide Series and offers a wealth of information and superb full color illustrations for novice as well as seasoned mushroom hunters. This field guide is compact enough to be carried afield for on-the-spot reference.
Gearing up for morel hunting!
The basic equipment of the mushroomer is very simple but needs to be discussed to ensure a pleasant excursion. Unless you plan on simply driving back roads and checking likely spots close to the roadway, be prepared for lots of walking over hill and dale!
Dress in comfortable, loose fitting clothing. You will be stooping and kneeling down frequently as you harvest morels. Wear sturdy, comfortable, well broken in and waterproof footgear for traversing sloped terrain and wet areas. A brimmed hat will shield your eyes from the sun as you continually scan the forest floor for morels. The hat also helps your body retain body heat on cool days thus requiring less clothing. Add to your “must have” list a small folding pocket knife for cutting morels off close to the ground, a medium sized nylon mesh collecting sack, a stout walking stick for steadying yourself on hills and pushing aside leaves and may apple fronds etc. to expose hidden morels, a compass (always carry a compass!) and a signaling whistle and you are ready to go. The need for a compass or, better yet, GPS unit is obvious. You always need to know how to get back to your starting point as you aimlessly search for morels in often new and expansive territories characteristic of northern Michigan. The signal whistle is needed to keep track of the general location of companion mushroomers or to summon help if you need it. A cell phone is nice—-if you can establish a connection!
On longer excursions a small backpack is in order. Keep it light and simple. I usually pack a compressible down vest or folding rain poncho (depending on weather), water bottle, energy snacks, L.E.D headband light (for late treks out of the woods), extra nylon meshed collection bag(s), a small digital camera (I’m continually searching for the ultimate morel photo!), a cell phone, a hand held GPS unit and a pocket sized log book to pinpoint and record the locations of morel “hotspots” as I wander to and fro through the woodlands.
My “walking stick” is a cherished 5-foot hickory stick I cut and used when I broke my foot nearly 25 years ago. You can’t keep an old mushroomer out of the woods! In past years, I inserted a threaded stud in the butt end of my stick to serve as a portable camera mount when taking self-timer photos of myself and my trophy morels in the woods. I’ve run across some commercially manufactured walking sticks with a compass imbedded in the top of the stick which was also probably designed by a mushroomer for mushroomers. Somewhere in my pack I often include a small pruning saw and reflective trail tacks for preparing and inconspicuously “marking” potential bowhunting stand locations. I am always post and pre-season scouting for deer! You are now ready to hit the mushroom woods!
Where And When To Go And What To Look For
Morels, especially the white and tan varieties, and other edible fungi are widespread throughout Michigan. The popular black morel is most common throughout northern Michigan hardwood forests. Black morels are often found in disturbed soils and burned areas particularly during the early spring of the first year after a burn in the charred, carbon- rich soils. The white and tan varieties of morel fruit later in the spring, typically around Mother’s day, but fruiting varies locally and they are usually the latest morels to fruit where black, tan, and white morels coexist. The white and tan varieties (common morel) are often found scattered in small clusters on the ground in forests near standing and decaying elm or ash “host” trees.
In recent years, our forests are suffering with the onslaught of invasive insect species and diseases like the emerald ash borer beetle and, before that, Dutch elm disease. Both scourges target prime morel-producing host trees. As the root systems of the individual trees decay, morels MAY thrive. This is small compensation for the devastating economic and aesthetic effects these infestations, and others potentially to come, will have on our forests and forestry industries.
Be a responsible steward of our forests and comply with all firewood transportation bans! In the meantime, keep an eye on these potential hot spots over the next few seasons. An individual host tree will normally produce for two to five seasons. Morel growth is anything but normal or predictable. I call it morel magic! It takes a very unique and complex combination of temperature, soil moisture content, environmental and chemical variables to produce morels. So complex is this equation that, even with our modern technologies, commercial production of morels has been marginal at best. White and tan morels are also frequently found in grassy places, old apple orchards, cow pastures, and even in your own back yards! Like their black morel cousins, they are often abundant in disturbed or burnt- over soil the first year following the burn. Consider these “tips” on your next outing.
Perhaps the best way to get into mushrooming is to first go gathering with an experienced picker. With the going market price for fresh picked morels upwards of $40 per pound, most morel addicts are extremely secretive about their favorite locations. With a little “begging and pleading”, you may convince one of these woods-wise “creatures” to allow you to “tag along”. If you promise not to ever return on your own and agree to be transported to and enter the woods blindfolded, you MAY get some first hand instruction! As an alternative, I’ve heard that a number of private landowners in northern Michigan offer morel hunting on their private lands for a fee. I’m sure that they offer some “in the woods” instruction. It takes awhile to develop an eye for spotting morels, especially black morels concealed in the leafy forest floor. With a little practice, you will persevere.
As a recent downstate transplant, I plan on exploring both of these options! I’m really looking forward to my first northern Michigan mushroom season in 2008. For now, back to ice fishing!