MARQUETTE - Never in 50 years of hunting morel mushrooms had Pat Mattson seen such a thing. This week, close to her home in Houghton, in the Copper Country, Mattson went out to a familiar (and secret) mushroom picking spot she has returned to in the past, to find hundreds upon hundreds of morels. More than she has ever witnessed before.
Over a span of two days, Mattson had picked 576 morels, in a total of under two hours. She found 394 the first day and 182 the second.
"I usually don't count them," Mattson said.
500-plus morel mushrooms picked recently by Pat Mattson of Houghton. (Photo courtesy of Stacy Nordstrom)
There was such a large amount, though, she was curious to see just how many she found. She started to count.
"All of the sudden it got to 100, 200, 300," Mattson said.
Throughout the Upper Peninsula, people are trying their hand at finding these precious edible gems that only appear for a few weeks in the spring. The picking season occurs when the soil warms up and there is a good amount of rain. Where to pick them is the bigger question.
"You'd get all sorts of responses," said Jim Isleib, Upper Peninsula crop production educator for the Michigan State University extension in Alger County.
He said you can find them in forests where aspen, ash, poplar or elms are present as well as old apple orchards and burned areas after a forest fire.
Mattson's advice is to look around old ferns.
"Once you find one, there's usually more," she said, "Look at different angles."
Veteran pickers are always quick to give beginners advice, but whatever you do, don't ask them where they find their stash of morels. Most likely they will give a chuckle followed with a reply of, "Nice try."
It is common for morel mushroom hunters to keep their picking spots to themselves, Isleib said.
"People keep their cards close to the vest on the best morel sites," Isleib said.
The distinctive-looking mushrooms have a "delicious delicate flavor," Isleib said. A lot of people simply saute them in butter or oil. Some people add onions to the mix or eat the mushrooms with steak and eggs.
They are considered such a delicacy people in Michigan are paying between $15 to $35 per pound for them.
Although morels are relatively easy to identify, they can sometimes get confused with another type of false morel, which is poisonous to humans.
According to the MSU Extension bulletin on identifying morels, the true morels are distinguished by a hollow, cone-shaped to cylindrical cap connected at the base to a hollow stalk. The cap is distinctly pitted (not wavy, wrinkled or folded), and, in most species, there is no break between the cap and the stalk. True morels are usually 2 to 6 inches in height with a cream-colored stralk and cream, tan, gray-brown or black cap.
False morels differ from morels in the attachment and ornamentation of the cap, the bulletin said. The stalk is attached to the cap at the very top of the cap (not at the base or partway up the cap, as in true morels). The cap may be smooth wrinkled, wavy, ridged or folded, but is never pitted.
Eating false morels can cause gastrointestinal upset and a loss of coordination for as long as 5 hours after eating, so be sure you can identify the difference between a true and false morel.
The Michigan State University Extension office in Negaunee has bulletins for sale with information about morels called "May is Morel Month in Michigan: Identifying the edible morels," and "Don't pick Poison!: When gathering mushrooms for food in Michigan."
Danielle Pemble can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 256.