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OSCEOLA COUNTY — They’re out there. While they may not be visible yet and the weather isn’t cooperating with sightings, die-hard fans know mushrooms can be found every spring.
The key is knowing what’s what — with 100 percent certainty. Mushrooms can be problematic.
“I would say don’t pick anything unless you’re certain about what you’re picking,” said Michael Schira, a Michigan State University Extension educator. “If you’re not at all sure, double check with somebody who knows. Be very cautious.”
Most often, people learn what mushrooms are safe from others, said Timothy James, associate curator of fungi at the University of Michigan Herbarium.
“Mushroom hunting is pretty simple, you just need to know what you’re doing,” said James, who earned his doctorate in biology from Duke University. “The best way to learn is to be shown by someone who knows. Traditionally, this knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation — that’s how society has always done it.”
For beginners, James recommends starting with edible species which are easily identifiable and with learning which mushroom varieties are deadly poisonous.
“There are some easy ones that it’s nearly impossible to confuse with poisonous things,” James said. ‘For example, hen of the woods and chicken of the woods are easy to identify. They have a meaty texture and are a little tough, so you’ll have to cook them a little longer.
“It’s important for people to know all mushrooms should be cooked. Mushrooms, especially wild mushrooms, should not be consumed raw.”
Anyone trying a new variety for the first time should not eat too much until they know how they will react to that species, he added.
“Any kind of mushrooms, when you’re picking and eating them for the first time — not everyone agrees with them so well,” James said. “Eat a little bit of it the first time and if you’re OK with digesting it, you can try more.”
Many people in Mecosta County enjoy searching for morels in the springtime. There are two poisonous look-alikes, however, so people should be careful.
“Morels look like a raisin on a stalk,” James said. “Most people hunting them have a pretty good idea what they probably look like.”
To differentiate a true morel from a “false” poisonous variety, people can cut the mushroom in half from top to bottom.
“What you’re really looking for is the attachment of the cap, the raisin-looking part,” James said. “If you cut through the stem, that cap needs to be attached along the stem. In the two poisonous varieties, the false morels, the caps are only attached at the top, more like an umbrella. True morels will be hollow.”
In matters of mushroom identification, leave nothing to chance. Reading a description from a book or other material may not be good enough to be sure.
“If it was me, I would want to have my mushrooms verified by someone who knew them,” James said.
He suggested finding a local mushroom club, such as the Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club which is located in southeastern Michigan, to connect with people who know what they’re looking for in the woods.
Local morel hunters likely have a favorite spot, but anyone just beginning to search in the area can look for certain types of forest.
“I’d look near ash trees,” Schira said. “The year after a burn, after a wildfire, those areas are good places to look, also. You want to look in moister areas, in moist hardwood stands.”
Another tree species associated with morels are elms, though Dutch elm disease has nearly destroyed the elm population in Michigan, James said.
“Essentially, just go out into the forest, because it’s a little hard to predict,” he said. “Hardwood forests, stands of ash trees, and abandoned apple orchards are places to look, but the orchards are a matter of discussion regarding safety because of the chemicals that may have been used there.
“Just get out there is what I would say, and don’t worry if you get skunked,” he continued. “Even if you don’t find anything, you’re out there in the woods, which is half the fun.”
“Mushroom hunting has recreational value, especially if you do it with your family,” he said.
People should be mindful of where they are walking and stay off of private property unless they have the owner’s permission, Schira added. Also, throughout the mushrooming season, other plants in the woods mature such as poison ivy. When venturing into the woods, being aware of your surroundings can prevent unpleasant consequences.
“Wood ticks would be another thing to be mindful of, as soon as the snow is gone,” he said. “It wouldn’t stop me from going, but be sure to do a tick check when you get home.”