A Year of Fungus Among Us – Puffballs too!

A Year of Fungus Among Us – Puffballs too!

The wet months of July and August may have put a damper on summer vacation plans, but it sure did wonders for the number of wild mushrooms found in the woods. I am the first to admit I have very little knowledge about mushrooms, wild or store bought. Frankly, I don’t really care for the taste of them. Stuffed, sautéed, topping chicken, steak or burger, I’ll pass thank you.

During forest hikes this summer and early fall we saw many varieties, and when hiking partners mentioned chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, blewits or oyster mushrooms, I shrugged my shoulders and feigned ignorance. I’ll leave mushroom collecting to the skilled experts.

I do know mushrooms are the visible parts of fungi that have probably existed for many years in the soil or dead wood of a tree stump or log. They are the fruiting parts and when mature put out spores to produce the next generation. While there are edible varieties, there are also very deadly varieties, and anyone interested in collecting mushrooms for dinner will need training and detailed information for proper identification.

The one fungus among us I do know is puffballs. I don’t eat them, but when I was a youngster, and yes, even now as an elder citizen, I enjoy stepping on them when they are full of spores to see the “puff” of brown smoke-like spores fill the air. Their name puffball pretty much perfectly describes this unique mushroom.

I looked around for information on puffballs and found a 2013 UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources “Extension News” posting by Joan Allen with helpful information. It can be found at:

https://news.extension.uconn.edu/2013/10/15/fall-is-for-puffballs/#

“The fungi commonly referred to as puffballs mostly fall into three genera, Calvatia, Calbovista and Lycoperdon. When young and before spores begin to form inside, the flesh of a puffball is white and uniform, sometimes described as marshmallow-like. At this immature stage the true puffballs are edible and delicious. Puffballs range in size from smaller than a marble to larger than a basketball. The giant puffball, Calvatia gigantea, grows to anywhere from 4 to 28 inches in diameter on average but the record holder was well over eight feet across and weighed in at 48 pounds.”

A reliable source of information on our forests and the natural world is “Northern Woodlands,” and I found a fun article about giant puffballs by Madeline Bodin from their publication The Outside Story Volume 2. It can be found at:

https://northernwoodlands.org/outside_story/article/puff

“Giant puffballs are unusual among mushrooms because they love sun. You can find them from summer to fall on lawns, in fields and in cemeteries. More rain generally means more mushrooms, including puffballs.”

I don’t recall ever seeing a giant puffball, but perhaps this summer the abundance of wet weather spurred them on in other regions. I have the smaller species in our lawn, and by late summer to early autumn they have developed a yellowish-brown color with a small hole in the center. Looking like a deflated golf ball, I enjoy stepping on them and watching the spores pour out the hole. Puffball mushroom spores can number in the trillions! I am happy to help spread the spores and regenerate these fascinating fungi.

They are edible when young and white, but not when the spore mass starts to turn yellow and brown. It is very important to note that while puffballs are edible when they are young, you must correctly identify them by slicing open the mushrooms to distinguish them from their poisonous lookalike counterparts the Amanitas, which have horrible names such as death caps or destroying angel mushrooms. Puffballs have no internal features. They should be pure white like marshmallows and have no patterns, while the Amanitas have stalks and gills on the inside. But even the safe puffballs become inedible when the spore mass starts to turn yellow and brown. It is also important to note the spores should not be breathed. Exposure to large amounts of spores from mature puffballs can cause Lycoperdonosis, a respiratory disease and inflammation in the lungs.

It sure has been a wet year, and perhaps the cycle will continue into the winter with rain and snow. The month of October has been relatively dry, especially on weekends when folks have been out enjoying the beautiful fall foliage season and TLGV’s Walktober program. Despite the recent dry weather, this year will be remembered for the rain and the fungus among us. So many varieties sprouted from the soil and moist woodlands. They were really something to marvel at – even the puffball mushrooms, a childhood favorite.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. I hope you’ll join me as we enjoy it, care for it, and pass it on.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and can be reached at bill@tlgv.org or by calling 860-774-3300.

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