Puffballs as a group, are easy to recognize. They’re fungal fruiting bodies that produce their spores inside enclosed balls of tissue. The spores eventually escape when the ball either ruptures or develops a small opening or pore. Some have stalks. Some are large, some small. Basically, they’re balls that, at maturity, puff out spores.
The complication is that “puffball” isn’t a scientifically definable group. The various puffball genera are not closely related to each other, and most are more closely related to non-puffballs—that makes it unwise to make assumptions about any mushroom based on its puffball status alone. For example, many people insist that all puffballs are safe to eat, an assertion that depends on defining the toxic ones as not really puffballs.
Definitions can get fuzzy in other ways, too. Are earth-stars puffballs? They do produce their spores inside an enclosed ball, but they also have an outer later that splits open to produce a kind of star-shaped collar. What about Birds Nest Fungi? They have tiny spore-production balls growing in groups inside little cups of tissue. Or what about truffles? They’re round, after all. Some writers refer to “true puffballs” as opposed to various false ones, but which species go in which category is definitely a judgment call.
Then there are the mushrooms that look like puffballs when very young but definitely are not. More on them in the section under Toxicity.
The main thing is not to get distracted by the familiar and charming ball-shape into thinking you already know everything you need to about all puffballs.
My name is Austin Collins.
I’ve dedicated my life to Mushrooms.
I believe Mushrooms are the best kept secret when it comes to health and well being.
For that reason, I would like to share a company with you that in my opinion makes the best mushroom products on the market.
I take their products every day and they have helped me think better and have more energy. Give them a try.
Puffball Mushroom Identification (General Characteristics and Traits)
The general characteristic of puffballs is roundness, but as noted, it’s important to recognize that as similar as puffballs look, they are not really all one group. There are at least 13 genera in five families. Here is a very brief introduction to each puff genus (although please bear in mind mushroom taxonomy changes often). In the next section we’ll go into detail about a few of the more popular and interesting species.
The granular puffball, Arachnion alba is the only member of its genus. It’s a very small, stalkless, thin-skinned puff, notable for its very grainy interior—curiously, each grain is a separate spore-containing packet, puffs within a puff. Edibility is unclear.
Astraeus and Geastrum
These two genera sometimes combined into one, are the earth-stars. In some species, the star-shaped collars close up again in dry weather. The genera look very similar but are not in the same family. They are not known to be toxic, but are unpalatable.
The mushrooms of this small genus do not look like puffballs, having a distinct cap and a very long stem. And yet the cap produces spores inside itself, like a puffball, and “puffball” is part of the common names of some of its species. None are considered palatable.
A genus of classic, stemless puffballs, edible but usually not very good. Curiously, the stringlike connection between the ball and the mycelium often breaks at maturity, allowing the ball to roll around freely, distributing spores—a tumble-puff!
The genus name means “pretty mouth,” referring to the raised, red pore from which spores escape at maturity. Some species are stalked, others are not. Some have an outer layer of goo that falls away and collects in a pile as maturity approaches. Generally considered unpalatable.
Another classic puff genus. Some of these get startlingly large. Some are popular edibles, others are less appealing.
Another classic puffball genus. There are many species, mostly small, mostly thick-stalked, and mostly (but not entirely) edible.
This genus consists of a single species, M. corium, although the fruiting body can look very different depending on whether it grows underground or above ground. It is edible, though some people react poorly to it.
Another genus of puffballs that contain tiny, grain-like, puffballs inside them. At least some species may be edible, although few people eat them—perhaps because they look unappealing. At least some can be used to make dye.
The ball of these puffs is shaped rather like a tall, narrow, egg and sits on a long, thin, woody stalk. At least some species are described as edible by some writers, though others disagree.
Curiously, the name of this genus also refers to an entirely unrelated chronic disease in humans. In any case, these mushrooms, often referred to as earthballs, are definitely toxic. Some writers (including, at times, us) define these as not puffballs in order to support the “all puffballs are safe to eat” rule.
These mushrooms are sometimes called stalkballs, since the fruiting bodies consist of round balls atop very thin stalks. They are very small and considered unpalatable besides.
It’s actually a bit difficult to determine which puffballs are the most popular, since many writers persist in referring to puffballs as if they were a single species. Nevertheless, here are a few often mentioned individually by name. All these are edible (hence their popularity), but please note that all puffballs become inedible once their spores start to mature.
There are actually at least two giant puffball species, though this one is better-known and quite wide-spread[xvi]. It is often roughly ball-shaped, but can be wrinkled or lobed. There is no stalk. The skin is smooth and white. The size alone—these are often bigger than soccer balls, sometimes much bigger—makes them hard to misidentify once full-grown. While this is not the tastiest of the group, its mild flavor is pleasant and versatile. The flesh dries easily to make a powder useful in soups and sauces.
The common puffball[xvii] earns its name, being quite wide-spread. It also has a number of close look-alikes, though reputedly none are poisonous (see the warnings under Toxicity, though). It is relatively small, only about two inches across, white or whitish, and covered with tiny spines and warts—far from being ugly, these give a visual impression of encrusting crystals, hence the alternate common name, gem-studded puffball. The “gems” fall off with age, leaving a lacy-textured surface. As table-fare, the common puffball is not excellent, but if the tough skin is peeled away and the young interior is cooked properly, it can be quite good. Common puffball omelets are particularly recommended by some writers.
This very-small-to-medium-small puff is, indeed, shaped like an upside-down pear. Its surface is covered with warts, at least when young, but these are small and not obvious. The surface also starts out white, darkening to brown with age. Brown specimens are too old to eat. Pear-shaped puffball is unusual among puffs in that it grows exclusively on dead wood—it’s also called the stump puffball, for that reason. If it appears to be growing from soil, that means the wood is buried (or the identification is wrong). The pear-shaped is considered only mediocre in flavor, but if peeled and properly-cooked, it can be good. Try frying it with onions. And since this puff usually fruits in huge, dense clusters, it can at least be plentiful.
Yes, the spores of this one are purple at maturity, but foragers looking for food hope not to see that color—as with other puffs, the purple-spored is only edible when the interior is still white. In fact, this species is considered among the best puffs for the table. It is large, but not huge, usually smaller than a soccer ball, with skin that can be either smooth and white or textured and brownish. Though round when very young, it often develops a narrowed base so that in profile it comes to look like a bit like a loaf of bread or a muffin. A similar, but smaller mushroom is variously considered a subspecies of the purple-spored or a separate species in its own right, C. fragilis.
Puffball Mushroom Look-Alikes
As noted, the puffball group is more or less defined by appearance, so the close look-alikes of puffballs are, arguably, puffballs. Alternatively, one could define the puffs very narrowly (for example, only including the Calvatias and the Lycoperdons), in which case groups such as the earthballs become look-alikes. There are also some slime-molds that have a ball-like shape and could be mistaken for a puff.
The big problem is that a number of non-puff species are initially enclosed in round eggs of tissue, looking so much like puffs that the only safe thing to do is to slice all puffs gathered for the table open, to check for tell-tale non-puff structures. Stinkhorns have an early egg stage, but since these are edible (if unpopular), a mistake wouldn’t be a disaster. Amanita eggs, on the other hand, would very much be a disaster, as the group includes the most poisonous mushrooms in the world.
Puffball Mushroom Benefits
Many puffball species are edible. Like most edible mushrooms, they are healthy to eat, packing a lot of protein and other nutrients in with very little fat and few calories. Details depend on the species. Some reportedly have traditional medicinal uses, though few, if any, are well-known medicinals.
Puffball Mushroom Dosage
Puffballs are not used as medicine and therefor don’t have a dosage.
Puffball Mushroom Toxicity, Safety, Side Effects
The most serious risk with eating puffballs is the possibility of accidentally eating an Amanita egg instead. Such a mistake could kill, depending on the species of Amanita. It is vitally important to learn to tell the difference between the two, and to always check before eating.
The earthball group is known to be toxic (not usually deadly) and could also be mixed up with one of the edible species by the incautious. Earthballs differ from other puffs in being much more firm and in having a spore mass that starts to darken much earlier, at a stage when the edible puffs are still white inside.
Even edible puffs are only edible when young, while the spore mass is entirely white. Once the spore mass starts to color up or darken, the taste is—at best—ruined.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that the standard line about all puffballs being good eating is not exactly accurate. Even aside from earthballs, there are many that are simply not palatable, some that are usually edible but bother some people, a few that can accumulate toxic metals, and doubtless some whose edibility is unknown. Even in a group that contains a large number of distinctive-looking edible species, such as the puffballs, there is still no alternative to knowing exactly which species one is eating.
Apioperdon pyriforme (until recently known as Lycoperdon pyriforme), the Stump Puffball, is one of the most gregarious of all fungi. The banana of the fungi world, its bunches create impressive vistas sometimes stretching way into the far distance in woodlands where thinning has taken place and the lopped branches have been left for Mother Nature (mainly in her mycological guise) to dispose of. These pear-shaped fruitbodies are often seen swarming over dead stumps. (If they appear to be growing on soil this is not so but simply an indicator of buried trunks or branches.)
The Stump Puffbals pictured above are young and fresh, whereas those below have darker outer surfaces and the spores masses inside them will be maturing. At this stage these fungi will have become inedible.
A widespread and very common find in Britain and Ireland, the Stump Puffball fruits most often in large, densely-packed groups on decaying tree stumps and sometimes on well-rotted fallen branches. Lycoperdon pyriforme is a worldwide fungus; its distribution includes mainland Europe and Asia as well as North America.
This edible fungus of the forests was first described in scientific literature in 1796 by Jacob Christian Schaeffer, who gave it the binomial name Lycoperdon pyriforme. That name was subsequently ratified by Christiaan Hendrik Persoon in 1801 and therefore remains its accepted scientific name today.
Synonyms of Lycoperdon pyriforme include Lycoperdon pyriforme var. excipuliforme Desm.and Lycoperdon pyriforme ß tesselatum Pers.
The genus name Lycoperdon literally means ‘wolf’s flatulence’ and just begs the question who got close enough to a wolf and stayed there long enough to become an expert on such matters. For most of us, surely such an odour cannot be a practical diagnostic feature for identifying the Stump Puffball, Lycoperdon pyriforme.
Nothing at all to do with funeral pyres, the specific epithet pyriforme comes from Latin and simply means pear shaped.
Typically 1.5 to 4cm across and 3 to 4cm tall, the pestle-shaped to pear-shaped fruitbody of the Stump Puffball is initially covered in short pyramidal warts. At first white, the skin turns brown and a dark area develops at the apex, which ultimately opens to release the spores. The fruitbody is attached to the substrate – usually the stump, half-buried rotting branches or roots of a dead tree – by means of long, white mycelial filaments extending deep into the substrate.
The short, spongy stem is usually more or less parallel or slightly conical tapering in towards a truncated base; it contains infertile material that remains white even when the gleba in the ‘head’ of the fungus has matured and turned dark olive-brown.
Round or subglobose, smooth, 3.5-4.5µm in diameter.
Olive-brown, eventually becoming dark brown when fully mature.
Unpleasant gas-like odour; taste not distinctive.
Habitat & Ecological role
Saprobic, found growing mainly on stumps and roots of dead trees, usually hardwoods but occasionally on softwoods too. Stump Puffballs may appear to be growing on soil, but there is always rotten wood or decaying woody debris just beneath the surface. (The Stump Puffball is the only puffball species in Britain and Ireland that grows on wood rather than on soil.)
July to early December in Britain and Ireland.
Lycoperdon perlatum is usually somewhat larger, and it is covered with much larger pearly warts.
Lycoperdon mammiforme is white at first before its surface breaks up into large cream flakes that fall away to leave a fairly smooth pinkish-buff surface.
Like many other puffballs, these fungi are edible only if picked when young and white throughout. They are easily gathered because of their habit of growing in dense clumps, but being of only mediocre they are not much sought after. Nevertheless these common woodland fungi can make a nice meal if prepared and cooked properly. The first and most important step is to remove the tough outer skin – a fiddly job perhaps best done with a sharp knife. Choose only fresh young fruitbodies which, when cut in half along the vertical axis, are white all through. Discard any that have begun turning yellow, olive or brown, as this indicates that the spores are maturing and the flavour will be seriously marred if you include them in your dish. One of the best meals that you can make with these puffballs is a mushroom omelet; they can also be fried with onions or used to make soups.
A note of caution for newcomers to fungal foraging: there are ball-shaped fungi known as earthballs, and some of them can look quite similar to Stump Puffballs; however, their spore-bearing inner material starts off pale grey and gradually becomes dark grey, brown or black as the spores mature. Earthballs of any kind are inedible and some of them can cause serious poisoning. The most common of these, found on woodland tracks (and therefore sometimes close to Stump Puffballs), is Scleroderma citrinum, the Common Earthball. The differences in features between puffballs and earthballs are quite obvious once you know what to look for, but it is important to learn how to distinguish these two groups if you plan on gathering edible puffballs for the pot.
There are also some poisonous gilled mushrooms which, when young, could be mistaken for Lycoperdon pyriforme, the Stump Puffball. Amanita muscaria, the Fly Agaric, first appears as a white-warted round button – the red cap skin does not show through until the cap has expanded somewhat – and at that stage it could quite easily be mistaken for a puffball. Even more seriously, the infamous Deathcap, Amanita phalloides, starts off as a rounded button mushroom, sometimes pure white or with just the faintest hint of olive. I mention this simply to emphasise how important it is not merely to learn how to identify a range of the finest edible mushrooms but, equally importantly, to become familiar with the identifying characteristics of the poisonous fungi with which they could be confused.
For more help with this important safety matter see Fascinated by Fungi; however, some introductory information on edible fungi with toxic imposters is online here…
For a very easy to recognise edible puffball that cannot be mistaken for any other mushroom, see Calvatia gigantea, the Giant Puffball. Unfortunately it’s not every day that you stumble across Giant Puffballs, as they are not only uncommon but also very localised in their distribution. If you find a good spot for these mighty meaty meal sources, make a note of it because Giant Puffballs can reappear in the same places for many years.