The arrival of spring is full of excitement. The snow is finally gone, the trees begin to dress themselves in leafy green, and the woodland floor comes to life. But it’s the elusive morel mushroom that draws me in amonst the trees each spring for a long, and hopefully fruitful walk.
For as long as I have lived in Northern Michigan I’ve counted the days until that first morel mushroom hunt. When I was little, my brother and I would grugingly venture out into the woods wandering aimlessly until someone shouted, “found one!” and we all rushed over to remind ourselves of what we were looking for. Even a seasoned mushroomer needs that first glimpse to adjust the eyes. Gazing across a vast and rolling canvas of browns and greens of a hundred shades it feels a bit like finding that proverbial ‘needle in a haystack.’ But once you find the first one, it’s “game on!”
This year we took our kids for their first hunt. My brother and dad joined in the fun as well. Dressed in layers and carrying our onion sacks we headed off into the woods to see what we could discover.
I rarely leave the house without my camera; there’s just so much to capture in and around Traverse City. And the woodlands in spring are one of my favorite subjects. So, to be honest, it’s not just morels I’m hunting for.
Michigan is rife with wildflowers, many of which bloom a for short period in the spring. What flower can resist the dappled sunlight of a leafless wood and an earthen floor of rich dense forest compost. Before we reached the first bend in the undergrowth leading us off the two-track I had already snapped several shots. Dutchmen’s Breeches, columbine and yellow trout lilies are common in the woods. But it’s the protected species like trillium and jack in the pulpit that are more exciting to find. Masses of trillium can be found carpeting the woods and seen from the road. But there’s something special about finding one lone white blossom against a decomposing tree. Nature’s beauty. (Check out our spring photo gallery for more wildflower photos)
Edible treats come in all shapes and sizes in the woods. Fiddlehead ferns, like this one, will soon expand to shade the leaf covered floor. But picked in this state they’re tender and fresh when sauteed. And then there’s the wild leek.
The smell of wild leeks, or ramps as they’re also known, is subtle in the early spring and grows more pungent as the morel season progresses. Their tall wide leaves grow in clusters and have been know to hide a black morel or two if you’re not looking close enough. In fact, our first morel of the day was found among them.
As I said before, that first morel is the hardest to find. We used to make bets on who could find The First, The Biggest and The Most mushrooms on a single outing. I can honestly say I don’t think I ever won the award for The Most, but I’ve had my share of First and Biggest awards.
Up here in the north woods we’re lucky to host all three types of morel mushrooms. The black, or French morel, the white or yellow morel, and the much less common grey morel. On this hunt we found all three. If you ask me the black morels are the hardest to find. With the shadows of decaying leaves, fallen trees and other debris they blend right it. My strategy is to get down at their level…well not quite that low…and scan a close area. My husband has the uncanny ability to spot a black morel at 20 yards! Either I need glasses or he has superpowers.
The most exciting find of the day was this huge cluster of grey morels. We often find them in groups of two or three, or locate several in close proximity, but this cluster was amazing.
There is a reason morels grow in groups or near each other. Did you know that morel mushrooms are the above-ground reproductive system for a huge underground fungus? The fungus lives among the roots of certain trees in a symbiotic relationship where each benefits from the other.
I found some fabulous flora among the fungi on this trip. I love to look for the Jack-in-the-pulpits and maidenhair ferns, both beautiful examples of Michigan’s protected native species. I found both, and in abundance. So I was enjoying the walk, despite my less than stellar mushroom haul.
The kids had fun screaming at the top of their lungs and disrupting the peace for creatures near and far. But when a mushroom was found they came running to examine the scene and volunteer to pick it.
Half fun onion sacks in tow, we walked back to our cars after two and a half hours. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday in Northern Michigan.
Check out our Spring Photo Gallery for more images of Michigan wildflowers, morel mushrooms and other springtime firsts.