Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Fall 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
TRAVERSE CITY — Morel mushroom hunting is a popular springtime activity — but for those in the know, it’s just a precursor for fall.
Fall is Michigan’s prime mushroom hunting season — not spring, like many mistakenly believe, said Chris Wright. Wright is executive director of Midwest American Mycological Information, a non-profit charity aiming to provide accurate and up-to-date information on mycological matters.
“The cool thing about Michigan mushrooms — especially in the fall — (is) you have all sorts of textures, flavors and there’s just a great diversity,” Wright said. He also is chairperson of the Cultivation Committee for the North American Mycological Association and has a Ph.D in plant, soil and microbial sciences from Michigan State University.
Changes in weather tend to trigger mushroom growth, Jim Moses said. Moses, of Maple City, has grown shiitake mushrooms for more than 30 years and, along with his wife, Linda Grigg, has taught cultivation and identification classes at Northwestern Michigan College.
Among the many species that emerge in fall are the honey mushroom, the giant puffball, black trumpets, aborted entoloma, hen-of-the-woods, lion’s mane, dryad’s saddle and Michigan truffles.
Or, as they’re formally known: Armillaria mellea, Calvatia gigantea, Craterellus cornucopioides, Entoloma abortivum, Grifola frondosa, Hericium erinaceus, Polyporus squamosus and Tuber canaliculatum.
“So many people who know a little bit tend to know more common names,” Moses said. “Those who know more have to use Latin names to make sure we’re talking about the same thing.”
Some mushrooms are being studied for potential medical use.
Hen-of-the-woods — known medically by its Japanese name, maitake — possibly helps fight tumors, stimulate the immune system and lower blood sugar levels, according to WebMD. Lion’s mane might help improve the development and function of nerves, boosting memory and thinking skills, WebMD reports.
Neither species’ usefulness can be rated because of “insufficient evidence,” according to the site.
Other mushrooms, like Trametes versicolor — commonly called turkey tail mushroom — have some scientific studies that show their effectiveness. WebMD lists turkey tail mushrooms, which grow in summer, as “possibly effective” in improving the response to chemotherapy and/or radiation in people with certain types of cancer.
Mushrooms to watch out for in fall include Jack O’Lanterns (Omphalotus illudens), the eastern North American destroying angel (Amanita bisporigera) and the funeral bell mushroom (Galerina marginata), Wright said.
Jack O’Lanterns commonly are mistaken for chanterelle mushrooms — which are choice edibles, he said. An easy test is to cut the mushroom down the middle — chanterelles have white flesh and Jack O’Lanterns orange, he said.
Jack O’Lanterns aren’t deadly, but cause serious vomiting and diarrhea, Wright said.
On the other hand, the eastern North American destroying angel and funeral bells will kill a person if eaten, he said. Both species contain toxins that will destroy the liver, Wright said.
“One (of those species of) mushrooms might be able to kill a couple people,” he said.
Ensuring people have the ability to differentiate — in a reliable manner — between harmful and safe mushrooms is part of why he founded MAMI, Wright said.
State law requires those who commercially gather and sell mushrooms have certification through the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development. MAMI offers certification courses.
Still, understanding mushrooms is a group effort, said Moses, who is certified.
“To understand mushrooms is impossible for an individual,” he said. “We really have to understand mushrooms as a group where people have individual specialties. There are a lot of things I find in the woods that I know and a lot of things I don’t know.
“Everyone kind of contributes to the experience and learning,” Moses said. “A bad day in the woods is better than a lot of other days a lot of other places.”