Springtime searching for and gathering morel mushrooms and wild leeks is a popular pastime for outdoors-persons of all ages in this great state of Michigan.
Finding and gathering tips abound, but one fact is certain. Morel mushrooms, and to a lesser extent, wild leeks
“don’t follow the rules!”
Morels at times appear virtually anywhere but are most prevalent near and around dying host trees. Most common hosts are elm, ash, apple, and poplar trees. Their dying underground root systems provide the essential nutrients to trigger morel spore germination. Forest fires, subsided beaver dam floodings, and any widespread disruptions of the forest floor like selective and clear-cut logging operations also often encourage prolific morel mushroom growth.
Tip One: Focus your attentions on these type of areas. Wild leeks are more sun intolerant and are usually found on the top and sides of woodland ridges. Wild leeks are usually found in patches that can easily be spotted from a distance in late spring when their leaves begin to turn yellow. This is when they reach mature size for gathering. Coincidentally, morels are often present amongst the leeks, so be sure to inspect leek patches as well!
The natural wind is the primary dispersion mechanism for most spore-producing plants, including morel mushrooms. In order to have morels there must be spores present! Each morel produces millions of spores if left to complete its life cycle. Mother Nature is real good at providing this. Wild leeks on the other hand propagate below ground via root interaction. The key is that there must be some leek plants left unharvested in each patch to facilitate subsequent growth! This is where the “human” impact often hinders the natural cycle.
Tip One: Never harvest every morel or wild leek! This distinctly human characteristic is what turns once-prolific morel and leek areas into marginal ones. This fact is evident in many once-productive areas of northern Michigan. Fortunately, wild leeks have not suffered the same fate, due in a large part to less popularity with gatherers. Some Provinces of Canada are not so fortunate. Commercial harvesting of wild leeks was so pronounced that governmental restrictions had to be imposed to save this now endangered species of plant.
There are effective ways to help Mother Nature more effectively propagate morel mushrooms and wild leeks! Much the same as “Johnny Appleseed” of colonial American lore was reputed to plant European varieties of apples hither and yon throughout the woodland meadows, you as a conscientious gatherer can do the same.
With morels this process begins the moment you harvest your first one. Never simply “pluck” a morel out of the ground! You don’t want to disturb the “root” portion of the morel. This will stop the growth process of other potential morels in the cluster. I always use a small folding “jackknife” to gently cut the morel off near its base. Then place your culinary “treasure” in a nylon mesh collection bag or common onion sack. This practice allows for natural air flow during transport and fresh mushrooms when you reach home.
There is another reason for this step that leads in to the next phase of your artificial morel propagation efforts. You are about to “assist Mother Nature” and the haphazard wind in dispersing those precious morel spores in just the right spots for natural germination!
Once you have finished harvesting in the immediate area, gently “shake” your mesh collection bag in likely spots in the area. Remember to shake around any trees that appear to be dying. Barren branches and peeling bark are indicators of potential “seeding” candidates. As you travel to and fro during your mushrooming travels, do the same with other likely host trees.
Remember my first tip of never harvesting every morel or wild leek! Experienced gatherers are noted for being “tight-lipped” when it comes to divulging their secret spots. They know that at best they can expect only three to five seasons of morel production in each specific location…only if some morels are left for “seed.” If the spot is too publicly known, every morel will likely be harvested. In this manner, even vast expanses of morel habitat can be rendered unproductive for years to come!
We purchased our property in northern Michigan’s Wexford County in 2001 near the quaint little town of Mesick. For over 50 years Mesick has hosted a popular annual Mushroom Festival. Each season hundreds of mushroomers converge on the area to gather, sell, or purchase these forest delicacies. Abundant state and federally owned properties are virtually picked clean. The saving grace is that these areas are often large and remote and enough private lands are left virtually untouched to allow for limited morel propagation.
Tip: Put your hiking boots on, always carry a compass or GPS, and “get off the beaten track” to discover morel concentrations. When you do, keep your mouth shut and harvest responsibly!
As an “Aging Michigan Outdoorsman” I can remember in the late 1960s when morels were virtually everywhere in the Mesick area. When we purchased our property there were no morels present…only tales told by neighbors of morel harvests of the distant past. The natural environment was however much the same as it always was. I even had an old apple orchard and over 50 isolated apple trees on my property! When we eventually built and moved to the property in 2007, I hatched my long-range plan.
I correctly reasoned that the lack of morels was due to severe over harvesting… there were no spores to germinate and produce morels. I began by doing like everyone else and traveled off the beaten track to harvest my morels and wild leeks. I began to religiously shake my meshed mushroom bags in likely locations on my property. I even resorted to taking “plugs” of morel-laden ground and transplanting them in especially promising locations. I used this same strategy when transplanting wild leek clusters.
A good gathering friend of mine from the Detroit area harvested some leek plugs from the Jordan River valley and transplanted them in his backyard in Livonia in 2001. As far as I know he, an excellent home chef,
still harvests wild leeks from his garden!
Tip: With both the morel and leek plugs, I made sure that the soil composition, location, sun exposure, and ground temperature (taken 4 inches below the surface with a common garden probe thermometer) exactly matched to original plug location. Realizing that it often takes three to five years for morel spores to germinate, I continued “shaking and waiting” for results.
I found my first clusters of morels in 2011, in of all places, near the back of my outdoor wood burner near the rear cleanout door! Others started sprouting in my front yard on and near my engineered septic tank system drain field mound. I never harvested a single morel! Over the next few seasons morels began appearing in other more traditional places on the property. Ironically, even though I liberally “seeded” these areas, I have yet to find a single morel in my old apple orchard or around any of my apple trees! This experience confirms that the mysterious morel grows where and when it wants to and often doesn’t follow any rules!
For more information about the many lessons I have learned during 50 plus enjoyable years as an
my Trilogy of Books on Fifty Years of Lessons Learned of a Michigan Outdoorsman. These books are specially designed and formatted to be read and enjoyed while actually in the outdoors and are available in both print and EBook format.