May 14, 2014 - Brian Duerden is a pretty modest guy, so he'd never call himself an expert when it comes to hunting morel mushrooms.
Morel mushroom hunter
Brian Duerden displays some of his finds this season. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
But given he typically finds between 400 and 500 of the gourmet delights in a season, it's safe to label him a morel master.
"I've had seasons where I've gotten over 1,000 if I've really been looking," said Duerden, who single-handedly maintains all 27 acres of Oxford Township's four cemeteries through his company BAM Landscape & Lawn Care. "I've found a little over 700 in one spot. That's the most I've ever found (in a single spot). It was an area darn near the size of this house just literally covered with them."
Duerden's been hunting morels for about 30 years now. He started when we he was around 17 or 18 years old.
"It's something that I do by myself," he said. "I never go with anybody else because if one other person knows where you're looking, you're competing against them. You'll find most mushroom hunters are like that. It's a secretive type of thing."
Morel mushroom season is once again upon us in Michigan and Duerden was gracious enough to offer the benefit of his knowledge and experience to those planning to pursue this coveted fungal delicacy. Like any good mushroom hunter, he was careful not to divulge the locations of any specific areas he frequents, but he was more than willing to part with some sage advice.
"You want to try to hunt in the areas that they are more likely to grow," Duerden said. "You want to try to avoid the areas that they don't grow. If you can avoid the 95 percent of areas where they don't grow and look in the 5 percent of the areas that they're more likely to grow, then you're more likely to find them. Even looking in the 5 percent, they're still hard to find. You've got to put in the time."
Morel season typically starts in late April or early May.
But that's not a hard-and-fast rule.
"I've found them as early as the first week of April and as late as the last week of May," Duerden said. "I've heard about people finding them when there's been snow on the ground. I've never found them with snow on the ground, but I've seen photos where other people have."
Duerden said right now is "the peak time" to find them.
Varieties of morels that grow wild in Michigan include whites/yellows, greys and blacks.
In northern Oakland County, Duerden primarily finds whites/yellows and greys.
Morel size varies from small to unbelievably – almost scary – large.
"They can get huge," Duerden said. "I've seen them the size of a football before."
Contrary to what some people believe about him, Duerden said he doesn't have any "magic spots" where morels just keeping popping up year after year.
"It's a misconception," he said.
Duerden said the true black morels that grow in northern Michigan are a "different mushroom" than the whites/yellows and greys in this area.
"They grow in different conditions, different temperatures," he explained. "They will generally grow in the same spot over and over and over and over again."
"Down here, it's different," Duerden continued. "Typically, you have areas you go to because they've got the right soil and it's got the right trees. But very rarely will you find them in the same exact spot for more than say two years. (A spot) usually has one good producing year and then maybe a couple where you find just a few. Then it's done. They're just not going to grow there anymore. The conditions aren't right anymore."
But just because a specific spot may be done producing doesn't mean the general area around it is done, too.
Duerden stressed the "key factors" an area needs for morels to grow are "the right soil" and "the right trees."
"Those are the two basic things that you have to have," he said. "The soil is probably the most important thing. It's got to be well-drained. It can't hold water and have puddles. Sandy loam is the best soil."
Sandy loam is a mixture of sand, silt and clay.
"Sandy loam is the best, but I've found them in gravel, pea gravel, rock. It's well-drained. That's key," Duerden said. "I almost never find them in clay."
As for the trees, Duerden normally finds morels around live maples and dead elms and ash trees "with the right amount of decay."
"I think it has something to do with the amount of decayed debris from these trees along with the proper soil," he said.
While those are good places to look, there's no guarantee morels will sprout there. Sometimes they're around other trees.
"I actually found some today around an apple tree," he said.
Just as there are certain trees to look for, there are also certain trees to stay away from when morel hunting.
"The trees I avoid are oak trees, stands of pines, and nut trees – walnut, hickory, stuff like that," Duerden said. "Not to say you can't find them there. I'm sure there's people that have found them around there. But (in my experience), they're not likely to grow in those areas."
Once a hunter locates an area with good conditions that produces morels, Duerden advises them to check it everyday during the season. "From what I have seen, they pop up instantly, overnight," he said.
In addition to soil and trees, weather is another critical factor, specifically temperature and rainfall.
"It seems like the peak temperature is when it's around 70 degrees during the day and it doesn't get any colder than 50 degrees at night," Duerden said. "That's like the optimum temperature. You can get them before that, but the frost stops them from growing. If they pop up and then you get a frost, that's it. They don't grow anymore. It pretty much kills them. It doesn't kill the season, but those mushrooms that grew at that time won't grow anymore."
Conversely, hot weather isn't a good thing, either. "If it gets to be 85 or 87 degrees, that's way too warm," Duerden said. "They dry out."
Upper 60s to low 70s is the perfect temperature range, in his opinion.
Precipitation is a must. Humid and rainy conditions are a good thing.
"It's got to be wet," Duerden said. "If it's been raining for a week with 68-to-70-degree temperatures and it's not real cold at night, they're going to pop up."
"If it's raining, they'll keep growing and getting bigger," he added. "If it doesn't rain, they'll dry out. The sun will dry them out. They'll start drying out in one day if there's no moisture and the sun's beating on them. If they're growing in some kind of groundcover where they stay shaded from the sun, they can keep growing. Usually, they get bigger when they're in some type of a groundcover that holds moisture."
Duerden felt he would be remiss if he didn't warn inexperienced mushroom hunters about the dangers of false morels.
There are approximately a dozen species of false morels known to grow in the U.S.
False morels are poisonous and can cause people to get sick and potentially die.
False morels are toxic to the liver.
After consuming them, a person can become ill within six to 48 hours, according to the Mother Nature Network website. Symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, headache, dizziness, vomiting, nausea, fatigue, muscle cramps and bloating.
A sure way to tell a false morel from a real morel is the stem. "If it's a hollow stem, it's a (real) morel," Duerden said. "Hollow stem is the Number One thing."
Duerden warned mushroom hunters to beware if there's a cotton-ball looking substance inside the stem. It's a false morel. Don't eat it.
Another way to identify false morels is if they have a wrinkled, brain-like or saddle-shaped structure rather than the honeycomb look of a true morel, according to the Mother Nature Network.
Once a hunter collects some morels, he or she can dry them for storage, then add water to reconstitute them at a later date.
Duerden prefers to pressure can his morels.
"I like canning them better," he said. "I think it adds more to the flavor."
Duerden stores his canned morels in water containing a teaspoon of Kosher salt and a teaspoon of lemon juice per pint. "I think soaking in that solution actually enhances the flavor," he said.
When it comes to preparing morels, Duerden enjoys sauteing them in a pan with butter. Morels have a unique flavor that is a combination of smoky, earthy and nutty. They are highly-prized by chefs and gourmands.
Duerden also likes using them in his chili.
"It adds to the flavor of the chili," he said. "It's great."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.