Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 27, 2008

Puff Muffin

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:14 pm


  ‘Tis the season for kicking puffballs. You can also whack them with sticks or hurl stony missiles at them, but you simply shouldn’t ignore them. At this late seasonal stage they are full of powdery pleasures and this feature elevates them well above their fellow fungi – at least from a human perspective. Other fungi are uni-dimensional when it comes to sapien entertainment value. Morals and Pinkbottoms can only provide food value, Inkycaps can only disgust you, and Death Angels can only kill you, for instance.  Puffballs can feed you, entertain you, amaze you, and make you wish you were dead. All of these traits are packed into one giant sphere of goodness.

  Puffballs magically appear out of the ground in late summer like so many Marshmallow Man eggs. The balls, actually fruiting bodies, originate out of a mass of rootlike threads in the soil and grow rapidly. True Puffballs have no stems or stalks but they do have a tenuous connection to the ground. Even so, they look like they are sitting on the soil rather than issuing from it. They can grow to impressive proportions. Many will attain watermelon size and there are records of puffers reaching 44 pounds in weight.

  Fresh puffballs are edible. They can be sliced like a ham and the slabs fried with butter, garlic, and a pinch of salt.  I’ve eaten them a number of times and found them quite delicious – if you like mushrooms that is. Watch out for those false puffballs – those with a hidden stems – that are not edible (“beware of puffballs bearing stems”). 

  Determining when a puffball is suitable to eat, according to a fungal website (, is simple : “When the basiocarp is young you can do a section through the gleba and observe the glebal chambers, which are lined with basidia and basidiospores…the gleba disintegrates as the spores darken and mature.” Simple, eh? O.K., well, in non-fungal terms this means that a young fresh puffer will have a light skin covering a solid white interior. Cut through the thing and the whole interior should appear solid and white. As soon as the mushroom is past prime, it will darken as the spores start to mature. According to an old friend who has done it, eating a slightly over-ripe puffer is like eating a mushroom soaked in urine (he did not say “urine” but inserted a four letter word in its place). 

  Should you go to the above website, by the way, I invite you to check out the section titled “Fun with Calvatia giant puffballs.” There you will see people having fun with fungus and learn how a sizable puffball can become an acceptable butt substitute!

  By the time I shot these pictures of my backyard puffball in September (see here and here) it was already past prime.  Puffballs normally disintegrate into a papery bag of dusty spores in the late autumn months. Their skin peels off and the tiny brown spores – up to several trillion – are released into the air.  I could not resist the urge to help this process along via the rapid introduction of a stick. I captured the resulting explosion in the picture above.

  Should you have the urge to perform a similar act of helpful vandalism, I need to provide you with a few words of caution. First of all, make sure you are striking a puffball and not a dirty soccerball. Secondly, don’t inhale the spores. Apparently the spores can make you sick if you inhale a whole cloud of them. Use a long stick and make sure you are upwind when whacking puffballs. These are wise words for you to heed if you want a long life filled with puffball-tainment.

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