The Moral of the Morel

Get ready as ‘shroomers streak, sneak and tiptoe across Northern Michigan in search of morels. 

Featured in the May 2019 issue of Traverse Magazine. Get your copy. 

We call each other “’shroomers” as we set about ’shrooming in sacred, secret swales of aspen, ash and at times, red pines. But they are mysterious creatures, finding their way at times into driveways or city parks, newly dumped garden mulch and moss.

Inevitably during the season someone will inquire about your luck. I recommend we be wary of such conversation, lest we find ourselves empty-handed in seasons to come, even when asked straight up, which happens all the time. It begins with:

“Been ’shroomin’?”
“Yep.”
“How’d you do?”
“Pretty well.”
“Where’d you go?”
And here, I suggest you say:
“North a bit,” if you were east, or “East of town,” if you were north.

My parents were not mushroom hunters, so, unlike the locales I inherited from my father’s grouse and fly-fishing experience, my education in mushroom hunting and the collection of secret spots were entirely on me in middle and high school.

I remember finding my first huge white morel. I was probably 12 and on my way home from a haircut when I nearly stepped on it in Pennsylvania Park, downtown Petoskey, all by itself. I found one, remarkably, on a sandy hillside at the Winter Sports Park, where it had no business growing. Then I tagged along with friends. Once I cooked up what I found, I was hooked.

As my obsession grew I still did not know quite where to search, but I did occasionally hear friends, acquaintances and random strangers spill the beans about their favorite locations, sometimes relayed cryptically. I learned to always keep my ears and eyes open, and mouth shut. Soon, I became familiar with the smell and appearance of morel habitat and found new swales of aspen and stands of ash trees where the ground was right. It helped that some grouse habitat could possibly support morels. Even now, after hitting my honey spots, I try to search out new territories that have not already been discovered, but it’s getting harder.

’Shrooming is a pursuit improved by practice, but some seem incapable of discovery despite repeated attempts. Perhaps visual acuity and patience are not everyone’s strong suits, but I have seen experienced ’shroomers come through after others have worked a spot and find plenty. It becomes a matter of reading the earth, pattern recognition and genuine luck.

The surface of the morel mushroom looks like a random pattern of heavily traveled, pitted, crisscrossing trails, and is ingrained in my head to the point that even glimpses of hidden bits of a mushroom turn my head. Then, once I find one, I’m methodical and painstakingly slow in my search, spending hours in complete focus, lost in time.

I saunter, scanning, carrying a long, straight, probing stick. New plant and mushroom growth push the winter’s blanket of dead leaves upward in inch-high mounds before they break through to sunlight, so I read the ground’s contours like a loamy, runic language, lifting raised leaves to see what hides beneath.

Upon discovery, I do not race over to pick since most often if there is one, there are more. So instead, I lay down the mushroom stick pointing at mushroom number one and set my hat down like the center of a compass. I look down and behind myself— surprised how often, in spotting the first, I had missed others close by, sometimes at my feet—scanning from there, standing and squatting, marking any others I see on the compass round, before picking the first one last.

Where I live, there are two waves of morels: the early blacks, appearing not long after the first warmth of April, then the whites, yellow and grays that can be found just as the blacks fade away, growing some years into early June. I have a favorite spot for the early black morels, the Morchella angusticeps, which I have learned are impossible with the eye to distinguish from the smaller septentrionalis only found north of the 45th Parallel in the Great Lakes region, including Minnesota. Yellow and grays, Morchella esculentoides, I have read, are in fact the same species at different stages of maturity. I still find this hard to believe, but evidently, DNA evidence says so.

Now that we have such chromosomal evidence and microscopic analysis, scientists have discovered dozens of subspecies and believe they will find even more. To me, in the end, this fascinating information has little bearing on the fact that they are all delicious in omelets and on steaks—assuming they can make it in time from the frying pan to the plate before consumption, especially when fried with just a bit of butter and salt.

Every spring ’shroomers pour over the landscape like the ’49ers in the Gold Rush, both wanting to know where others find them, and wanting to protect their hard-earned secret spots as much as any prospector would. But most have to scour public land they may have to share with others. I have found there are those who earned their ’shrooms through hard effort and prospecting, and those who poach by looking for parked cars on the side of roads, assuming from there that the picking must be good. In the early days, I was guilty of poaching. But that was 40 years ago. Now I’m just an old hypocrite, forgetful of my early sins.

Since then, I’ve sworn not to poach from others, and to keep to spots I’ve found to myself, hoping (though doubting) that others will adopt the belief that invading another’s hard-earned secret spots should be a thou shalt not on the level of the big ten. I admit, maybe in the end, it’s to protect my own greed, but if someone discovers a new patch of morels, I want to think it should be theirs. To be sure, I have learned to park away from where I hunt, particularly if 
I can park where poachers will find barren earth.

Then, for the eating… Several times in the past, in banner years, I tried to dry them for fall and winter but I didn’t like them reconstituted much, so I tried freezing them, but learned I couldn’t stand the dissatisfaction in the approximate taste to the fresh morel. So, carpe diem—it is sweetest to await spring, celebrate the morel’s return and eat them all with friends and family, as soon as we can.

James McCullough teaches writing and literature at North Central Michigan College. // Melisa McKolay is an award-winning photographer specializing in lifestyle portraiture and wedding photojournalism. 

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Be the first to read articles like this with an annual subscription to our monthly magazine filled with stories and pictures of life Up North!