The Mushroom That Goes ‘Puff’ in Smoke

Who left that soccer ball on the front lawn? Come on, you know it didn’t just grow there.

Pretending to confuse a giant puffball mushroom with a soccer ball (or vice versa) is a well-worn joke among mushroom foragers. For the rest of us, finding out that there exists a common mushroom in Vermont and New Hampshire that frequently grows to soccer ball size sounds like more of a hidden-camera, the-joke’s-on-you kind of gag.

Not only do these giant mushrooms exist, says Ari Rockland Miller, a Vermont based mushroom foraging expert, they are edible, even delectable, early in their lifecycle, when their flesh is white and has the consistency of Styrofoam.

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. Two years ago Tropical Storm Irene, coming after a wet summer, unleashed a mushroom bonanza that foragers are still talking about.

By late in autumn, most giant puffballs aren’t any good for eating, but they’re great for entertainment purposes. For a certain type of kid (and a certain type of adult), finding one of these round, white mushrooms when it’s in its dry, papery stage is a joy. Jump on it. Kick it. Throw it at your friend. (You didn’t hear that last one from me, though.) Poof. It pops open and dark “smoke” appears.

That dusty smoke is actually trillions of mushroom spores, says Rockland-Miller. As a giant puffball ages, it dries out. Its outside develops cracks (unlike other puffball species, which develop holes at their tops), and its inside fills with tiny spores. Once the cracks are large enough, the spores disperse. Although most of the spores land near the parent puffball, if the wind — or a lucky kick — sends them flying, the sky is the limit. Aerobiologists have collected fungal spores at 10,000 feet; they’ve even been found blowing over the Arctic.

Giant puffballs are considered one of the easiest mushrooms to identify, because once they get bigger than your fist, there is really nothing else they can be mistaken for. However, Rockland-Miller says, small puffballs can be mistaken for the young versions of some of the deadliest mushrooms around here — Amanita mushrooms, a genus that includes the death cap and the destroying angel.

There are a number of other mushrooms growing in our area that bear some resemblance to the giant puffball, at least in some of their life stages. Many of their common names are fanciful; Rockland-Miller guesses that the author of an important field guide to mushrooms made up many of these names, and they reflect his wry sense of humor. These include the skull-shaped puffball, purple-spored puffball, gem-studded puffball and pear-shaped puffball. There is also the pigskin poison puffball, which is not a true puffball, but one of a closely-related group of mushrooms called earthballs. It’s brown, football-shaped, and, yes, poisonous. Another closely-related group of mushrooms are the earthstars, which unfurl starfish-like enclosures from central, spore-storing balls.

Of all these species, only the giant puffballs grow to soccer ball size, or even larger. The big ones are startling enough to attract media attention. In early October of this year, a newspaper article about some giant puffballs on a Michigan couple’s front lawn appeared in newspapers around the country. In September, a giant puffball in Monkton, Vt., made the local television news. Its owner cut it open on camera to show its foamy, white flesh — just right for eating. The puffball was roughly the size of a basketball.

As for that suspicious orb on your lawn, here’s a test that works this time of year. Kick it. If it puffs out smoke, it’s probably a mushroom. If it rolls, it probably belongs to your neighbor’s kid.

Madeline Bodin is a writer living in Andover, Vt. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by “Northern Woodlands” magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: