It’s mid-morning on an early May day in Michigan. Cottony clouds filter the sun shinning down from a blue sky. A warm breeze carries the damp, earthy sent of the woodlands awakening to a new season. Twigs crack under the slow, purposeful steps of a couple walking through a forest of young trees, their eyes cast down at the leaf-covered ground. The hunter and huntress are looking for the Mitten State’s rarest catch. A prey that’s immobile, yet elusive. They seek the coveted morel mushroom.
To just look at it, the morel mushroom isn’t all that charismatic. It doesn’t at all resemble its toad-stool cousins with a cone-shaped cap and honey-combed flesh. Enthusiasts say it’s the fungus’ unique, nutty, smokey flavor they crave. Add to that their brief growing season and the challenge of finding them, and you have a recipe for a cult following. The Michigan DNR says more morel mushroom hunters take to the woods in spring than deer hunters in the fall. That’s saying something in a state where the first day of firearm deer season is practically a religious holiday.
Some morel mushroom hunting’s popularity may also come from the fact that anyone can do it with very little equipment. If you want to give it a try, you really only need three things: a good set of eyes, a mesh bag for collecting your bounty (more on that below) and a lot of patience.
When and where to Look for Morel Mushrooms in Michigan
Morels grow in every county in Michigan. The season begins as early as mid-April in the southern Lower Peninsula and can run as late at mid-June in the Upper Peninsula. Weather is a big factor in determining when the mushrooms sprout. Ideally, they needs daytime temperatures above 50 degrees and night time temperatures above 40. They like moisture, so a few days after a warm spring rain is a good time to look for them.
As to where to look, experts are very specific about the fact that there is not a specific place morels grow. There-in lies the mystery. They are most often found in the woods. However, backyards, city flowerbeds and even damp basements can be breeding grounds for the ‘shrooms. The presence of moisture is really the only common denominator in morel growth. The bounty is often greater after a snowy winter that’s followed by a rainy spring.
Some experienced foragers recommend searching old growth forests. Others say wooded areas that were recently logged or cleared by a fire are the best places to hunt. Some recommend focusing your search around live ash and elm trees and at the foot of any dead trees or around old logs. Abandoned railroad tracks, ditches and fence rows are also good places to look.
Don’t expect seasoned morel hunters to give up their favorite locations. They’re usually very secretive when they find the mother load. And if you happen to find one yourself, don’t expect it to always produce. In keeping with their unpredictable nature, morels don’t always regrow in the same spot each year.
How to Identify a Morel Mushroom
As mentioned above, morels have long caps with a honeycomb texture. They come in shades of white, brown, yellow, gray and black. Usually, they’re between one and four inches tall, and one to two inches in circumference. However, in 2016 someone in Missouri found a morel that was a record-breaking 12 inches tall and 13 inches around!
If you find what you think is a morel, but aren’t sure, find someone else to help you identify it before you eat it. Many mushrooms are poisonous, and eating them will make you very ill. If after consuming morels, or any wild mushrooms, you have stomach cramps, lightheadedness or nausea go to the ER immediately.
The Process of Hunting Morels
You don’t need special equipment to hunt morels. Simply walk slowly, keeping your eyes down, scanning the ground in front of you. If there are a lot of leaves on the ground, gently brush them aside and look underneath. Since the mushrooms like damp places, you may want waterproof footwear, like muck boots. Foragers recommend carrying a mesh bag to collect your morels. This allows you spread the spoors from harvested mushrooms as you walk, encouraging new growth.
If you pick a morel, cut them off at the bottom of the stem. You could use a knife, but you should be able to just pinch it off with your fingers. Whatever you do, don’t yank them out of the ground. This way you leave the root system intact, giving them a better chance to regrow. Take note of all the locations you find morels, so you can return next spring. But keep it a secret, lest another ‘shroom seeker steals your territory.
Do You Need License to Hunt Morels?
You don’t need a license to hunt for and eat your own morels, but you need one to sell them. If you find a large cache, you could make some nice dough, since they sell for as much as $50 pound! Private individuals, farm markets and restaurants are all potential customers. You can get certified to sell wild mushrooms from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development by taking a class and passing a test. MDARD wants to make sure no one gets poisoned. Contact MDARD for more information.
What to do When You get your Morel Mushroom Bounty Home
Morels should be stored in the refrigerator, and they’ll only last about a week. You can wrap them in plastic, a paper bag or place them in a dry container. You can also dry morels to preserve them for later. Simply use a needle and thread to string the mushrooms together, hanging them upside down from their stems. Hang your garland of mushrooms in a cool, dry place and wait. It may take anywhere from two days to a week. Once they’re completely dry, store them in a plastic bag.
Morels, as with any wild mushroom, can not be eaten raw. Even “safe” mushrooms like morels contain chemicals that may cause illness in people. Cooking the mushrooms over heat neutralizes the chemicals and prevents a reaction.
Before cooking or drying your morels, they need to be cleaned. Morels tend to be full of sand and grit. Soak the ‘shrooms in cold, salted water for 10 or 15 minutes. Change the water and repeat one or two more times.
Morels can be added to many dishes, but most folks say the best way to eat them is simply sauteed in butter. Pat the mushrooms dry, slice them in in half or quarters and roll in flour. Melt half a cup of butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the morels and cook three or four minutes, until browned.
Other Ways to Find Morels
If you don’t want to forage for your own morels, you can find them for purchase in the spring at farm markets and some grocery stores. Dried morels are for sale online. Just be prepared to fork overs some serious cash. As mentioned above, they are not cheap! Also, many local Michigan restaurants offer special spring menus with dishes featuring the morels.
For the very adventurous gardener, you can try to grow morels at home. You can find a few different kits online.
If you really, really love morels, you might was to celebrate the coveted fungus at one Michigan’s two mushroom festivals. The Mesick Lions 59th annual Mushroom Festival kicks off May 11th with mushroom hunting, food, games, music and activities for the whole family. The following weekend, Boyne City hosts the National Morel Mushroom Festival, beginning on May 17th. Again there’s something for everyone with carnival rides, mushroom seminars and feasting on mushrooms, of course!
The next time you take a spring walk in the woods, be sure to keep an eye out for the mysterious morel mushroom!