May 01, 2013

Mushroom time, in Michigan, is just around the corner. Some folks have found some already and the prime time is right ahead, for blacks at least. All we need is some nice warm weather and possibly some more rain and mushrooming will be as good as it gets. The season generally starts late in April and continues through much of May but it depends a great deal on the weather. While most of the mushroom hunting happens in the northern portion of the state, morels are also found in the southern counties. The challenge is to find land on which to hunt them and that means private land and permission to hunt.

Finding morels is the real challenge. Some people do it easily – for others it is a struggle. Walking around in the woods in that half-crouch, it is difficult to spot the first one – they are well camouflaged. Once you find the first one, however, you can get really focused and doubtless find some more. There are a number of strategies you can employ to help find them and most of them are effective.

If you are searching on public land, get off the road – way off the road. There are lots of others out looking for morels and you just have to assume that the area close to the road may have been searched. Those serious mushroomers that participate in the contests hit the ground running and get as far from others as possible. If you venture into big woods, take along a compass or a hand-held GPS and pay attention to landmarks.

It is usually a good idea to stay on fairly high ground. Morels don’t like low, swampy ground and rolling country is easier to walk and easier to search. If you proceed on a slightly uphill course, your eyes are a bit closer to the cover and that can be an advantage. Try to find shallow valleys in the landscape. The valleys will trap the leaves and other debris that nourish morels and they can be a real hotspot. Light, somewhat sandy soil is usually best. Morels don’t like heavy soil or clay. They will grow in almost pure sand but then you can’t eat them. They get sand in them when they push up through the surface and you just can’t rinse it all out.

Finally, learn to identify trees readily. Certain trees foster the growth of mushrooms and particularly morels. The experts like to locate old, dead or dying elms. Ash trees can also be special. Big aspens (popple) are also good – they shed a lot of limbs and bark to nourish the fungi. Small stands of aspen broken by open, grassy meadows can be very good. A stand of trees that is rather open is usually better than thick stands of trees, partly because those open woods are often composed of mature trees.

Carry a small knife to harvest the mushrooms. Cutting rather than pulling them or breaking them will put them in your bag cleaner and leave something in the ground for future mushrooms. Gather them in an open mesh container or basket. A mesh bag like those in which onions are sold is ideal. The mesh exposes them to the air to retard spoilage and you will be spreading spores from the moment you place the first ‘shroom in your bag. The worst possible container would be a plastic bag. Morels begin to go downhill the instant you harvest them so you have to take some measures to protect them.

If you haven’t gathered mushrooms before and have any doubt about your ability to identify morels, get a mushroom book and study it carefully. There are a lot of mushrooms out there that could make you very sick and even the false morel will treat some people badly. A few people will even get a reaction from true morels. If you haven’t eaten them before, better go slowly with your first encounter. If you can, take a short course from a mushroom expert and learn about all the edible mushrooms. There are many good mushrooms out there and if you can identify them, you can gather mushrooms right through the summer. If you are uncertain, at least go with someone who is familiar with mushrooms, the first time you venture out.

Once you get home with your treasures, you need to take quick steps to preserve them. You can keep them in the refrigerator for a few days, in that open mesh bag or basket you used to gather them. To keep them for some time, you need to dry them. You can air dry them, dry them in a warm oven or use a hydrator. When they are thoroughly dry, they can be stored in an air-tight container for some time or frozen. When dried they take on a little extra nutty flavor. Using them fresh also makes a lot of sense. Fried in a little butter, they are a great compliment to almost any sort of meat or fish.

Mushrooming is a great family enterprise on a balmy spring day. It offers fresh air, exercise, an adventure akin to treasure-hunting and even the promise of a special meal or two.