It’s Puffball Season

     Fall is here, and I’ve been enjoying one of my annual autumn pleasures–squeezing puffballs.  I’m not too old to delight in watching the brownish ‘smoke’ waft up out of the little hole in the top of a puffball whenever I give it a light squeeze.  

     Lately I have been curious.  Just what are these dry, brown balls emerging from a patch of leaves or clustered on a tree stump, each with a hole in the top?  And what is the ‘smoke’ that so readily emerges from that little ‘blow hole?’  

     So I did a little research.  I learned that puffballs, like mushrooms, are the fruiting body of an extensive underground network of threads called mycelia.  For most of the year, this unseen fungal colony thrives on nourishment from decaying matter.    The puffball develops in the fall for reproduction, as berries and fruit develop in the fall to spread a tree’s seeds. 

     When it first emerges from the ground, a puffball looks very different from the dry, diminished self it will soon become.  The new puffball’s ‘cap’ is a large, cream-colored  dome.  Smooth and damp to the touch, it has as yet no hole in the top.  The puffball’s cap and the stalk that supports it are hardly differentiated.  The cap seems to be a bulging extension of the stalk. 

     A puffball reproduces differently from a typical mushroom.  The gills on the underside of a mushroom cap produce spores (the fungus equivalent to a plant’s seeds) exposed to the air.  But a puffball has no gills.  Its spores develop internally, within the puffball’s dome.   As the spores mature, they combine with tiny threads inside the dome to produce a brownish powder.  Meanwhile, the surface of the puffball’s dome becomes dry and thin.  A hole, known as the ostiole, breaks open in the top.  

     All is ready.  All that’s needed is for some raindrops to hit the puffball, or an animal to scamper past and bump the puffball, or a child to squeeze the puffball to watch the smoke come out.  Some of the millions of spores in the puffball will arise from out of the ostiole to be carried by the wind and dropped somewhere where they might take root.    

     And a puffball spore can take root pretty much anywhere.  Unlike many mushrooms that require specific substrates, the puffball can grow in a variety of habitats–meadow, forest, or lawn.  Just the other day, my son discovered a big, new puffball that had popped right out of a gravel road near our house.  I am keeping a daily watch on this puffball.  I hope I will be able to see it ripen into the dark little sphere ready to waft its smoke upward.–April Moore

 

a puffball that just 'mushroomed' in a gravel road near our house

a puffball that just 'mushroomed' in a gravel road near our house

 

          

 

squeezing a 'ripe' puffball in the woods

squeezing a 'ripe' puffball in the woods

5 Responses to “It’s Puffball Season”

  1. Kia Says:

    Loved the article and it brings back fond memories. We don’t have many puffballs around here so I’m not sure if Catesby Rose has ever puffed one. We’ll have to hunt one down for her! :)

  2. judy muller Says:

    Thank you, April. I still like to squeeze puffballs, and now know that I am not destroying something but doing it for the greater good.

  3. Catesby Says:

    Love it April it’s Catesby

  4. Priscilla Says:

    Fascinating, April! I have my own puffball story to share. A few years back, a friend encountered several ENORMOUS puffballs (white dome stage) in her wooded backyard. Digital photos of these alien objects were circulated via e-mail, and indeed someone knew what they were. The response came back: “Puffballs — YUM”. Apparently they are edible. I wouldn’t try it myself, however! Did you come across any information on culinary aspects of puffballs?

  5. April Says:

    Yes, Priscilla. My research did show that puffballs are edible, at the early stages, when they’re big and firm. Some say they’re delicious. Like you, though, I wouldn’t be up for trying them!

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