As summertime rolls around, maybe you’re thinking of trying a new activity, like mushroom hunting.
You’ve been hearing about these “morel mushrooms” for what seems like forever, and you decide it’s time to find and try them for yourself.
But, before you head out into the woods, know there is a lot of preparation that goes into mushroom hunting -- and I don’t just mean having the right gear on hand.
Mushroom hunting can be a dangerous hobby for newcomers. Yes, dangerous.
There are some 2,500 species of large wild mushrooms that grow in the state of Michigan, according to experts, and at least 50 of those species are considered poisonous. Some species cause mild illness and discomfort, while other poisonous mushrooms can be deadly.
It is believed that 60-100 species of wild mushrooms that grow in Michigan are considered edible, but even these can cause illness and require strict scrutiny and preparation -- and that includes the beloved morels.
By that count, there are thousands of mushroom species in Michigan that scientists still don’t know everything about. So, before you start picking wild mushrooms, it’s important to be prepared for your own safety.
Know before you go
According to Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), you should only go hunting for mushrooms if you are with a wild mushroom expert, or you yourself are quite familiar with mushroom species.
The reason? The only way to know if a mushroom is edible or poisonous is to examine its physical characteristics and identify its species, experts say. This requires a knowledge of the characteristics of wild mushrooms -- and there are a lot of different kinds -- and knowing which ones are dangerous.
There are also tons of mushroom look-alikes, making it even more important to know exactly what you’re looking for. What you think is an edible wild mushroom may actually be a similar-looking dupe that is toxic to eat.
Before going mushroom hunting in Michigan, do your research. There are several guides and books available that can help you learn how to identify and handle mushrooms. Some institutions, like MSU and the University of Michigan, offer workshops on edible and poisonous Michigan mushrooms, and even include guided mushroom hunts.
MSU also references the Michigan Mushroom Hunters’ Club, which is comprised of amateur mushroom hunters who go looking together during mushroom season, as a group to learn from.
Safely identifying morels in Michigan
Yes, the elusive morels. They’re calling out to you.
But there are several morel look-alikes that you must avoid -- so it’s a good idea to know what types of morels are edible, and what their characteristics are.
According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, “true morel” species -- those that are edible -- include the white morel (morchella americana), the black morel (morchella angusticeps), the half-free morel (morchella punctipes) and the burn-site morel (morchella exuberans).
You can see photos of these morel species below, courtesy of the Michigan DNR.
Even edible morels like those listed above can cause gastrointestinal distress if eaten raw, according to MSU’s CANR.
There are a number of look-alike species, called “false morels” that are not edible. These mushrooms fall under the Verpa species and the Gyromitra species.
Breaking mushroom myths
If you’re new to mushroom hunting, you may need to forget some things you’ve heard about the fungi.
In their “Don’t Pick Poison: When Gathering Mushrooms for Food in Michigan” bulletin, the CANR’s Heather Hallen identifies four ideas people have about mushrooms that are completely untrue. Here’s the list, as written by Hallen:
- “If an animal eats it, I can eat it.” This is not true. Squirrels and rabbits can safely eat the Amanita mushrooms, which are deadly poisonous to people.
- “If I eat a little bit, wait for a while, and do not get sick, the mushroom is safe.” The most dangerous mushroom toxins known have a delayed action. Amatoxins (deadly toxins in several mushrooms) cause painful symptoms only after 6 to 14 hours, but the onset of symptoms can be delayed for 36 hours or more. Symptoms of poisoning by Cortinarius toxins may take from 10 days to three weeks to occur.
- “Cooking the mushroom will destroy the toxin.” There is no way to destroy most of the dangerous mushroom toxins. Cooking is recommended for all mushrooms because it will break down some of the mushroom sugars that we cannot digest. A few fungal tosins are destroyed by cooking, but the majority of toxins are not.
- “Tests” to distinguish poisonous mushrooms from wholesome ones are not to be trusted. Folk tradition has given rise to a number of tests: a poisonous mushroom is supposed to darken a silver coin, or cooking a mushroom with silver is supposed to eliminate the poison; a mushroom is supposed to be safe if you can peel the cap; mushrooms growing on wood are supposed to be safe. These are invariably false. THE ONLY RELIABLE WAY TO DISTINGUISH A POISONOUS MUSHROOM FROM AN EDIBLE ONE IS TO LEARN TO IDENTIFY THE INDIVIDUAL SPECIES.
Experts say to never eat a wild mushroom raw, and to have the mushroom identified by an expert before consuming.
If you do plan to eat a wild mushroom, it’s a good idea to save a whole, uncooked specimen that can help doctors or biologists to identify the species consumed, should an illness occur.
Poison control can be reached anytime at 800-222-1222.
You can read the CANR’s entire “Don’t Pick Poison: When Gathering Mushrooms for Food in Michigan” bulletin from 2015 below. It goes into further detail about why mushrooms are poisonous, the types of symptoms they can cause, the types of toxins they generate and more.