Puffballs

Puffballs


"This is the hour when moonstruck poets know
What fungi sprout in Yuggoth, & what scents
And tints of flowers fill Nithon's continents,
Such as in no poor earthly garden blow."

-H. P. Lovecraft
(1890-1937)

   

Puffball (or Puff Ball) funguses are examples of "gastromycetes" (literally "stomach fungi") which completely enclose their spores. These start out as dense flattened mushrooms with no stem visible above ground. When they are ripe, the outer skin becomes papery, the interior dries out so that the whole round fungus is lighter than paper, & it lets go of its rooting so that it can blow about releasing spores from the hole that bursts open at the top and secondarily at the bottom where it was formerly attached to the ground.

The species name means "pear-shaped." The genus name translates "Wolf" (Lyco) & "burst of wind" (perdon), so that Nancy Smith Weber's mushroom field guide says it means, "Wind of the Wolf." A better translation is "Wolf Fart Pears," & some people do indeed call any fungus of the Lycoperdon genus "wolf-farts."

Shown above in an August photo are young Lycoperdon pyriforme Wolf-fart Pears underneath a Pin Oak. A larger species occasionally encountered is L. gigantea which ripen into puffballs as big as footballs. But most often seen in Pacific Northwest gardens is L. pyriforme, usually only an inch or two round at maturity.

Puffballs will spew a cloud of spores if tramped by animals or picked up & squeezed by curious & delighted children. A childrens' myth holds that if you breathe the spores of a puffball, you'll turn into one, or mushrooms will grow inside you. Kids' instincts are correct in assuming danger, as the spores are indeed potentially harmful. The spores in the lungs can cause respiratory distress & even germinate as far as the hypae stage, fortunately treatable with fungicidal medication. Also, if they are eaten once they begin to reach the spore stage, they can be very mildly poisonous. The additional child belief that getting spores in your eyes causes blindness is untrue, but it wouldn't be very comfortable either.

Horror-story mushroom myths shared between smaller children has the benefit of protecting them from accidents, but the myths teenagers come up with put them in the way of harm. The same sorts of young adults naive enough to believe baked banana skins are a good substitute for marijuana are also naive enough to believe the spores of puffballs are hallucinogenic if breathed into the lungs, a notion that has no basis in reality. An incident from Wisconsin involved kids breathing so many spores so deeply that they indeed germinated in the lungs, requiring hospitalization.

Puffballs are edible when young & when still fleshy-white within, though inedible once they've darkened & begun to go to spoor. When cut open, the gleba (interior) must not have any sign of yellow, brown, purple, or anything but fleshy whiteness. It should be regarded as toxic if it is any other color than white. The Giant Puffball can be sliced, breaded, & fried. Smaller species can be used like any other edible mushroom for any number of purposes. Unlike other mushrooms, however, they are nearly impossible to keep fresh longer than a day, as the toxic spoors will quickly develop inside them, & freezing destroys their taste. This is why they have no commercial marketability, but they are quite the delicacy when used immediately. Freeze-drying is the only way they might be kept any length of time.

They are considered among the safest choices for beginner mushroom hunters as nothing looks exactly like them that is poisonous. The major proviso is they must be used while still white within, though even when they go to spore they are only mildly toxic increasing their safety factor for beginners. At such a stage they are the closest thing one can have to French truffles without the great expense of true truffles. However, the thick-skinned varieties of puffballs called Sclerodermas are outright poisonous once they begin to change color, & have been implicated at least in the death of small pigs.

Although us amateurs would be taking very few risks in selecting white-fleshed puffballs for feast, I regard myself as a bit too amateur & not certain I would never mistake a Scleroderma for a Puffball. I would only harvest them to eat if a friend well versed in mycology was with me that day, but I've heard enough of "the horror stories" to be paranoid about gathering fungus for the table. Paranoia aside, puffballs are an extremely safe choice just so long as one uses nothing puffball-like that is thickskinned, stemmed, or any color within other than white.

Puffballs can appear in the same place year after year, usually under a tree, with oaks a favorite. There is a mycelial mass underground which is the main body of this fungus, which goes unseen; the fungus is only visible in late summer or early autumn when it produces the above-ground fruiting bodies which are the part known as puffballs or wolf-farts. The mycelial mass can reach downward several feet, & sometimes grows into a wide circle many feet around, which causes seasonal "fairy rings" to erupt in woodland areas & sometimes in lawns.

Although the puffballs can persist in a given location for several years running, as a rule the underground mass uses up the decaying matter & will need to migrate into a new area or else die out. When they form fairy rings, the ring can appear to be moving further away from a central point each year, as it uses up the decayed matter in the center of the ring then moves outward.

Puffballs are one of the least worrisome mushrooms to pop up around the bases of oaks or other trees. If one sees fan-shaped mushrooms or stringy funguses or little golden toadstools at the base of trees, one might be more concerned with the possibility of a pathogenic root fungus, but puffballs are harmless to a living host tree. Indeed, its presence often means that the array of beneficial mycorrhizae is extremely healthy for that tree, turning decaying matter into nutrients useful to trees & shrubs.

See also:
Turkey Tail fungus
& see:
Miscellaneous Mushrooms & Fungi
& see:
Lichens

   



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