As with many other parts of Michigan, it is morel mushroom season in Saline.
The brainy-looking fungi beloved by culinary types and grandmothers alike are starting to pop up, and The Saline Post went after some answers that might help to make your 2018 moral hunting season a bit more lucrative.
On April 23, when it was still quite cold outside, I talked on the phone with University of Michigan mycologist Timothy James who has been studying fungi of many varieties for a long time. He received his Ph.D. in biology from Duke in 2003 and has followed it up with a distinguished career in both teaching and research.
James said studying fungi is intriguing because there is a seemingly endless supply of questions to be asked and insights to be gained.
“I was a botany major and interested in plants and plant genetics and I just took a mycology class and really found love with the natural wonders and the mysteries that you can reveal in fungi. Fungi are cryptic organisms that grow inside their food and morels sort of embody that as well,” he said. “They’re in the soil and there’s actually a lot of uncertainty, ecologically, about what role they play. Using DNA and, just in some cases, microscopy, you can learn a lot about fungi.”
As far as morel mushrooms are concerned, James said it’s pretty much ready-set-go for hunting, especially given how much the weather has improved in the brief duration since we spoke.
“It’s time,” he said. “I’m looking at a site called thegreatmorel.com and it looks like there was a sighting in Kalamazoo yesterday,” he said. “Normally at this time of year we’re really getting ready to go into the season, but because it’s been so cold it’s totally behind.”
Even though this year’s season comes a bit late for us in our part of Michigan, James said it could make for decent hunting.
“Hopefully it’ll be a good year, but it’s just fun to look at the map, watch things progress and you can start to plan,” he said.
With weather conditions reaching optimum levels now that it is May, the other trick is to know where to look to maximize your chances of success.
“You’ve got to go to the right kind of habitat,” he said. “Particularly when Dutch elm disease was a bigger problem, a lot of the American elms are dead now, but when those elms were recently killed then they would often have massive flushes of morels around them.”
Similar trees are key, though, James said.
“But you still do want to go to hardwood: ash trees and tulip poplar, apple trees, particularly abandoned orchards are good,” he said. “You want to hunt in those kinds of habitats. There is a fire-associated morel, but they’re more associated more frequently with burning types of habitats like Jack pines, which we won’t find around here.”
But even with the best of training, morel mushrooms are still extremely difficult to find because the precise circumstances as to how they grow aren’t totally understood yet.
“Morels are a little bit different than some of the others because they’re known to first make this thing called a sclerotium, which maybe is more analogous to a potato than any other kind of plant structure,” he said. “It’s like a vegetative structure that forms and it’s resistant and it’s known that they form these before they fruit, and when they fruit they fruit right off of the sclerotium.”
This portion we find above the ground is the brainy mushroom we all love.
“They’re in the soil and most of what you see of the actual organism is below ground,” he said. “They form these sclerotia and under the right conditions those sclerotia will turn into a morel and that process takes about a week to get to maturity. For some reason they fruit in the spring.”
The color variances we see, and refer to as blonde, grey or black morel for example, are distinct species, James said.
While the secrets morel mushrooms hold have been hidden for as long as people have been hunting them, James said modern research is making a bit of headway in understating the fascinating fungi.
“The science is just taking off. There have been some major breakthroughs in the last five years and they’re starting to be cultivated on a large scale in China,” he said, indicating U.S. researchers are also making some significant advances. “(It’s) very early days, though, in that sense. But in China it is definitely going full scale.”
For now, we can take comfort in the fact that morel mushrooms grow in the wild over a fairly wide swath of the country.
“I was just looking at the morel map the other day and for some reason there’s this big gap in the middle of the country, but all Eastern United States east of the Mississippi way up into Canada should get good morel hunting country,” he said. “We’re one of the best spots to hunt morels.”
James said his own top morel season came a couple of years ago in the Upper Peninsula.
“The best year I ever had was when we went to a burn site, and this was the site of a large fire,” he said. “We were in buckets and buckets of them. But those are specific habitats. Down here in the south we’re not going to find them.”
When asked whether there is a scientific explanation concerning the premium taste sensation offered by morel mushrooms, James said the science is still out.
“It just tastes good, you know,” he said, with a chuckle. “Not all plants taste the same, so it just might be that it does taste better than others.”
Morel mushrooms also grow in the spring, following months of dormant winter, and are basically the first of their kind to pop up.
“Part of it is they are, you know, in a time of year when you won’t really find much of anything else. Because of that, it is more exclusive in the sense that you’re going to go out hunting two weeks from now and you’re either going to find morel or you aren’t going to find anything worth eating. Whereas if you go hunting in September there’s a number of different things you could, maybe, find.”
Whether you have a successful hunt or not, James said much of the allure is simply getting out into the woods and seeing what’s there.
“I think that they’re a gateway to exploring other kinds of mushrooms and that’s exciting to me,” he said. “If people get hooked on mushrooms and like morels then maybe they can try different things.”
Obviously, mushroom hunting novices should take caution when first starting out. It isn’t a good idea to simply start picking fungi and eating them.
But James and colleagues offer several resources to help mitigate potential dangers associated with collecting mushrooms.
“Me and two other mycologists have started this non-profit called Midwest American Mycological Information (www.midwestmycology.org),” he said, mentioning they are also part of a certification program. “This is basically to get people who take this test certified at knowing enough about mushrooms that they’re able, basically, able to collect and sell them. It’s a longer story but it’s been brought up by some legislation that requires that we have some way of examining people to know that they’re a certified mushroom expert.”
The number of people getting licensed is impressive for a program that has only been around a few years.
“There are about 300 people, maybe 400 now, that are licensed to do this in the state,” he said. “It’s better than nothing because what happened before there was any legislation, everyone could just do whatever they wanted, and people were taking mushrooms to farmer’s markets and stuff and this is allowing us to have some kind of check. It takes a lot of going out into the woods and getting your hands on these specimens to really know them well.”
To keep an eye on optimal morel mushroom hunting times here in Saline, visit the site James mentioned in our interview: www.thegreatmorel.com.