August 2006 18 / OutdoorIllinois August 2006 OutdoorIllinois / 19
Story By Darrell E. Cox,
Andrew N. Miller
and Joe McFarland
Photos By Joe McFarland
Most wild mushroom hunters in Illi-nois
recognize but one edible
species: the morel mushroom.
And while those sponge-capped
spring fungi are easy to recog-nize,
morels appear only once a year, for
a few precious weeks. Most mushroom
fanciers, therefore, get just one chance
annually to collect edible wild mushrooms.
But here’s something to kick around:
Puffballs, those spore-packed dust bags
of the Prairie State, are one of the most
unmistakable of our wild mushrooms.
And, when collected fresh, puffballs can
be a surprisingly worthy culinary subject.
Puffballs acquired their common
name from the ability of mature speci-mens
to discharge a cloud of internally
produced spores when physically
abused. If puffballs had no other redeem-ing
qualities beyond shooting clouds of
dust into the air, we’d still love them:
Most hikers can’t resist the temptation to
ceremoniously stomp a dry puffball, just
to see the cloud of spores blast outward.
Puffballs are called Gasteromycetes,
or “stomach fungi,” because their repro-ductive
spores are produced internally
and aren’t dispersed until they mature and
an opening in the outer wall of the mush-room
occurs. While the Gasteromycete
group contains edible, inedible and poiso-nous
mushrooms, puffballs of interest to
mycophagists (fungus eaters) are typically
Not only are those strange balls of fungi known
as puffballs fun to stomp, many species are perfectly
edible treats, ready to roll into your kitchen.
of Illinois likely the “egg stage” of an Amanita
mushroom and could be deadly.
The earthballs, members of the
genus Scleroderma, also may be mis-taken
for puffballs. Earthballs differ from
puffballs in that they have a thick or
leathery outer skin, grow partially buried
in the soil, and are dark purple to black
inside early in their development. Most
are poisonous, causing sweating, nau-sea,
diarrhea and vomiting when eaten.
The pear-shaped puffball, Lycoperdon
pyriforme, is one of the smaller puffballs
collected for eating. It is common and is
often found growing in large quantities on
dead wood. Two softball-size puffballs,
Calvatia cyathiformis, the purple-spored
puffball, and Calvatia craniformis, the
brain puffball, also are good edibles. The
purple-spored puffball is commonly found
in grassy areas and has purple spores at
maturity, while the less-common brain
puffball prefers to grow in forested areas
and has yellow-brown spores.
It’s the giant puffball, usually called
either Calvatia gigantea or Langermania
gigantea, that attracts sensational
reports from those who encounter these
strangely fascinating mushrooms. These
spherical to irregularly shaped oddities
commonly grow to the size of a basket-ball
or larger and are usually found from
late July through September in low areas
and forest ravines. The exterior is white
early, turning brown in maturity, and their
size can be overwhelming to compre-hend:
The world record was found in
New York in 1877 and measured more
than 5 feet long and 4 feet wide.
Calculating the reproductive potential
of such an amazing mushroom requires
plenty of zeros. A basketball-size puff-ball,
for example, might contain 7 or 8
trillion spores. According to a 2004 esti-mate,
that world record from 1877 prob-ably
held some 83 trillion spores.
Taking the math a bit further, British
mycologist John Ramsbottom calculated
that if a mere 7 billion of the trillions of
spores in a giant puffball produced an
average-sized puffball, laid end to end,
they’d circle the earth more than five
times. And, if their spores did likewise,
the resulting puffballs would reach the
sun and back two times and have a
mass 800 times the weight of the earth.
Perhaps it’s fortunate very few puff-ball
spores grow to produce puffballs.
Of course, it’s also fortunate there
are at least a few puffballs to kick
around. And fresh puffballs are nothing
to sneeze at. Melt some butter in a
skillet, coat a few slices of fresh, white
puffball in cracker or bread crumbs,
cook them up, and decide for yourself
which version—kicked or cooked—is the
most enjoyable puffball.
Darrell Cox is a University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign mycologist (retired)
and lives in Urbana. Andrew Miller is the
state mycologist working for the Illinois
Natural History Survey in Champaign.
the larger species in the genera Calvatia
and Lycoperdon. These range from golf-ball
size mushrooms to some weighing
more than 40 pounds. Look for them in
the summer and autumn on dead wood or
on the soil surface in forests, pastures,
lawns, etc. They may be oval, round, pear
shaped or irregular, and are white, cream
or tan in color. Some disperse their
spores through a pore while others
require a fracture in the outer layer before
their spores can escape (think again of
Fortunately, puffballs of eating size
are usually not difficult to identify as true
puffballs. The oft-quoted statement that
all puffballs that are solid and white
inside are edible should be taken with a
grain of salt. Some puffballs listed as
edible in mushroom books may cause
gastric upset in some individuals. For
this reason, it’s a good idea to eat only
one kind at a time, rather than a mixture
of species. If gastric problems occur,
you’ll know which species caused them.
Each puffball should be sliced top to
bottom prior to cooking to ensure that all
are white and solid inside. Those show-ing
any evidence of internal critters or
discoloration should be discarded, and
toss any that have the outline of an
embryonic mushroom inside. These are
Puffball party snacks: Fry rings of puff-ball,
stack bread, meat and cheese, then
bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes.
These small, “spiny puffballs” (Lycoperdon
echinatum) show the pure white interior of
edible puffballs. More commonly collected are the
“pear-shaped puffballs” (Lycoperdon pyriforme),
above, found on logs and stumps during autumn.
The “giant puffball” (Calvatia gigantea) makes
a grand appearance as the largest of our Illinois
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