CADILLAC — There are a few telltale signs to look for as indications that morel season has arrived, and while those signs have yet to make their appearance in Northern Michigan, it's better to start looking for the coveted fungi too early than show up for the party too late.
Erin Lizotte, integrated pest management educator for MSU Extension, said the start of morel season coincides closely with the burst of tree buds.
"The saying goes, if maple leaves are the size of a mouse's ear, it's time," Lizotte said. "It depends on weather conditions but looking at trees is really the best indicator. Start early, especially if you're hunting on public land, where lots of people are going to be looking. Take a quick peek this week and next week."
Morels typically make their first appearance around mid- to late-April and can be found through early May. They go through phases, with the smaller black morels showing up early in the season, eventually transitioning to gray and finally white morels, which tend to be the largest.
In general, Lizotte said spring conditions play the biggest role in the arrival and prevalence of morels: ideal temperatures for morel growth range from 60 to 65 in the daytime, to around 50 overnight, with soil temperatures also around 50 degrees. Sudden warmups aren't great for morels, which prefer a gradual spring warmup.
Immediately after a rain is a good time to look for morels, said Lizotte, who added the rain often flushes them to the surface.
Morels particularly enjoy elm and ash trees but can be found virtually anywhere, from your backyard to the side of road.
Elm and ash populations have been devastated by invasive species, which means there are fewer in the area but there also may be more opportunities to find dying trees, which are a magnet for morels.
"When they're in the process of collapsing, they push nutrients down into the soil," Lizotte said. "Morels feed on these nutrients and will fruit there."
Areas were there has recently been a wildfire or prescribed burn also may good places to find morels, both because of the excess in nutrients in the ground and because the area has been cleared of vegetation, making it easier to spot the mushroom caps.
Morels are pretty distinctive looking, which makes them a good fungus for beginner hunters to seek out, Lizotte said.
True morels have a hollow stem that connects directly with a hollow cap at the "skirt" of the cap. False morels look more like an umbrella, with the cap hanging over the stem. Some people eat false morels such as beefsteaks but that is highly discouraged, Lizotte said.
According to an MSU Extension article on morels, you cannot be harmed by picking a fungi but you can be harmed by eating poisonous fungi. Never eat a mushroom unless you are absolutely positive of its identity. Relatively few mushrooms can actually kill you. Approximately eight species are lethal out of more than 2,000 species in Michigan, but a poisonous species may be locally abundant. Spend some time looking closely at each mushroom you pick, and compare it with the pictures in a booklet or field guide.
Even if you're sure what you picked is a true morel, Lizotte said before eating it, it's important to cook the fungus all the way through to kill bacteria and other nasty germs. She said any sort of "heat degradation" cooking method, such as a frying pan, will suffice to cook a morel.
There is some disagreement among experts about the necessity of rinsing or soaking morels before cooking them but Lizotte said she prefers to dunk them briefly in some cold water to draw out any fly larva or slugs.
"Humans aren't the only animals that think they're delicious," Lizotte said.
For people who have health problems, and for those who are very old or very young, Lizotte said it's probably not a good idea to eat any kind of wild mushroom, just to be on the safe side.