Puffballs are popping up, mushroom lovers

The last few days, all has been usually quiet in the predawn hours at the Delta outpost.  Even the hound dog finds little to howl at.  The only sounds are her lapping up water from the recent rains and her toenails clicking on county road 153.

After dawn breaks, though, all sorts of interesting events are happening.

The fall rains have caused germination of millions of seedlings in ground laid bare by months of drought.  And the mushrooms have started to flush.  The wet, misty weather we have been having is perfect for mushrooms.  Among the most fascinating are the puffballs.  Puffballs enjoy surprising the forager, for they are seldom the prey being sought.

You have probably encountered a puffball at some time in your life.  Kids love to kick their giant round spore capsules–which look like brownish black speckled or even white baseballs emerging from the lawn–releasing clouds of black spores.  I was told they were poisonous when I was growing up and they are when the spore capsule is mature.

My family shared the widespread belief in our culture that all mushrooms are guilty (of being poisonous) until proven innocent (by an expert).  In Russia and many European countries, in contrast, all mushrooms are assumed to be edible if you just boil them first. Puffballs are often for sale at farmers markets in Europe.

It might be a little strange to think a puffball, with all those dry spores, could ever be tasty.  But when they are young and first emerging from the ground, they are so delicious.  Fall puffballs are especially attractive, because they grow more slowly in the cold weather, staying edible longer.

The term “puffball,” as most use it, is not at all scientific; it means more or less any mushroom that looks like a ball when mature. Typically the interior of a puffball is composed of spore-bearing flesh. When the puffball matures it splits open, or a perforation develops on surface of the ball, through which the spores escape–when raindrops land on the puffball, a strong wind blows, or a kid kicks.

Puffballs range widely in size and appearance–from tiny species that grow in clusters on wood, to huge ones growing in fairy rings in meadows. Puffballs come in many sizes, some as small as a marble and some as large as a basketball.  A few species, like the giant puffball, Calvatia gigantea, are enormous, reaching diameters of twenty inches!  It is estimated that the average mature specimen of C. gigantea contains 7 trillion spores stored inside the puffball.

Some include the “earthstars” with the puffballs since they consist, at maturity, of a puffball sitting atop a star-shaped arrangement of fleshy arms–as well as the so-called “stalked puffballs,” which consist of a ball-like spore case that sits atop a stem.

Most people think of puffballs as attached to the ground with little or no apparent stem.These puffballs fall in three genera of fungi, Calvatia, Calbovista, and Lycoperdon (the most abundant). Their surfaces may be smooth, covered with small or large warts, or ornamented with spikes.

If your puffball is growing underground, it may well be a truffle or false truffle, but I don’t know much about these, except that the French train hogs to hunt them and they are really expensive.

Most puffballs are safe to eat, although rare reactions have been reported.  The first step to determining whether they are safe is to cut them in half. They must be all-white inside. Any shade of yellow or purple makes them inedible or upsetting.

When sliced open, puffballs contain only flesh–or, if they have matured, spore dust. When cut, they must have a uniform internal consistency.  The external appearance of immature Amanita mushrooms is similar to puffballs.  However, the cap and gills of these unexpanded mushrooms become apparent when the egg-shaped fungi are cut in half. The Amanita genus includes the most poisonous species of mushrooms including ones with great names like the death cap or destroying angel.

Some slime molds can appear like puffballs, as well, but when sliced open they are filled with gooey, gelatinous material. Stinkhorn “eggs” are also gelatinous inside, and display the stinkhorn-to-be when sliced open.

Stalked puffballs have a stalk that supports the spore sack also called the gleba. None of the stalked puffballs are edible as they are tough and woody mushrooms.  Enteridium lycoperdon, a slime mold, is the false puffballs. False puffballs are ha
rd like rock or brittle. All false puffballs are inedible, as they are tough and bitter to taste.

I don’t know why anyone would want to eat a rock hard mushroom anyway.  I’ve heard some have medicinal qualities, but since I don’t need and don’t take any medicine except aspirin, I don’t need to remember all that stuff–at least not right now.

But I do like to eat mushrooms and baby puffballs are among the best.  But all sorts of mushrooms are flushing right now.  Oysters are out at Meadowcreek.  In front of the Delta outpost, an elm log has just sprouted what looks like chicken mushrooms.  Can’t wait to see if they turn that bright orange which means I’ll have a real treat.

In these last few warm days, now that it has rained, you know what you need to do: go out in the woods and look for mushrooms.  Even if you can’t eat them, they are fun to find.  Who knows, you might find a Lion’s Mane which seems to prevent Alzheimer’s.  Might even help you remember where it is when you need more.