Puffballs are a type of fungi in the division Basidiomycota. They are so named due to the dust-like spores that are emitted as clouds when the fruitbody bursts. They are characterised by their lack of an open cap with visible spore-bearing gills. The spores are, instead, produced internally within the gasterothecium, a spheroidal fruitbody. Stalked puffballs have, as the name suggests, a stalk to support this structure, which is tough, woody and made of infertile material, whereas true puffballs have no visible stalk. Some species, such as ones attached to the substrate by mycelial cords, may become unattached and roll with the wind.
Puffballs are saprotrophic, meaning they feed on non-living organic matter, known as detritus. They break down detritus into utilisable nutrients and minerals, which maintains soil health and aids plant growth. Puffball species can be identified by the shape and size of the fruitbody, any surface features and the presence and shape of a stem. Species can also be determined by the examination of spores using a microscope. When cut in half, young puffballs whose spores have not begun to develop will be pure white all the way through. Older species turn yellow or brown on the inside. This can help distinguish them from earthball species, which has a dark interior (or gleba), or other mushroom species, which have visible gills.
Most puffballs are not poisonous but can resemble young poisonous mushrooms such as the death cap. True puffballs are edible when immature but any spore can cause digestive upset if consumed and caution should always be taken as some fungi are highly poisonous. This blog is not meant to be used as a guide for foraging. This blog covers the key identification features, distribution, season and habitat preference of some of the puffball species known in the UK.
Common Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum)
Distribution: Common and widespread in Britain and Ireland Habitat preference: Deciduous and coniferous woodlands, grasslands and along roadsides. Season: July to November What to look for: This species usually has a pear-shaped fruitbody that is 3–6cm tall. Its surface is covered in pearl-like attachments, called pyramidal warts, that are different sizes. These warts begin as a cream colour before turning ochre and falling off to leave an olive-brown surface marked with scars. Older specimens will have a dark area at the apex, where the pore hole develops. The common puffball has a visible stem that resembles an often distorted inverted cone. The spore mass is olive-brown and turns dark brown when fully mature.
Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea)
Distribution: Widespread and fairly common Habitat preference: Roadside verges, field edges, nettle and other rank vegetation, woodland edges and occasionally found in open woodland or woodland clearings Season: July to November What to look for: This species can achieve a massive size, typically 10–80cm across. They are initially white, with a lumpy and leathery appearance, connected to the substrate by a root-like mycelial cord. While the interior of the immature puffball is white, mature specimens have a greenish-brown gleba. Did you know? This species is known to form fairy rings. The mycelium hyphae spreads horizontally in a radial pattern. The hyphae can then sprout fruitbodies on the surface, forming a circular pattern thought in folklore to be the dwelling places of fairies and other magical beings.
Pestle Puffball (Lycoperdon excipuliforme)
Distribution: Widespread and fairly common Habitat preference: Woodland and short grassland Season: August to November What to look for: The pestle puffball is initially white but turns ochre as it ages, and grows to between 10–20cm tall. The globe-shaped head grows between 4–10cm wide. The stem-like section, called a stipe, is often wrinkled in appearance and usually around half the diameter of the head. It is covered in pointed warts that fall off, leaving a smooth surface. Did you know? After the head has ruptured and released the spores, the stipe will grow and remain intact throughout winter.
Dusky Puffball (Lycoperdon nigrescens)
Distribution: Widespread, fairly common Habitat preference: Variety of habitats, such as woodland, moorland and sand dunes Season: June to September What to look for: The dusky puffball is usually between 2-3.5cm tall and 2-4cm across. It is pear-shaped, with a surface that begins pale brown before turning darker. It is covered in dark-brown spines that fall off as the puffball matures. This species has a visible, short stem with shorter spines. The spore mass inside is initially white and firm, before turning yellowish-brown and then dark brown and powdery.
Mosaic Puffball (Lycoperdon utriforme)
Distribution: Widespread but uncommon Habitat preference: Sandy open pastures or heaths Season: July to November What to look for: The common name for this species is derived from the pattern across the head of the fruiting body, which develops as the specimen matures and the outer wall breaks into patches. It is subspherical to pear-shaped, between 6–15cm across and up to 15cm tall. The fruitbody turns grey-brown with age and the scales begin to fall away before the fruitbody eventually ruptures. Did you know? The base of this species can also persist for several months after the fruitbody has burst. It resembles a blunt-ended inverted cone. Other synonyms: Calvatia caelata, Calvatia utriformis, Handkea utriformis,Lycoperdon bovista, Lycoperdon caelatum, Lycoperdon sinclairii, Lycoperdon utriforme
Brown Puffball (Bovista nigrescens)
Distribution: Widely distributed, more frequent in southern counties Habitat preference: Grassland and pastures, but can also be found in fields, lawns or roadside verges Season: Late summer to autumn What to look for: The fruitbody is between 3–6cm across, with a slight point at the bottom. This species lacks a stem and is attached to the substrate by a mycelial cord. The outer wall is initially white but flakes off as the fruitbody matures to expose the dark purple-brown inner wall.
Stump Puffball (Lycoperdon pyriforme)
Distribution: Widespread and fairly frequent Habitat preference: Grows mainly on decaying trees and logs Season: July to early December What to look for: This species is typically 1.5–4cm across and around 3–4cm tall. It has a pestle- to pear-shaped fruitbody that is initially covered in short pyramidal warts. The originally white surface browns with age, developing a dark area at the apex where the pore will occur. The stump puffball is attached to the substrate by several mycelial filaments. The stem remains white as the head matures.
Puffballs, the Perfect Starter Wild Mushroom
Now is the time to find puffball mushrooms, an easy and delicious mushroom for the beginning forager
The popularity of foraging for wild food is on a steady upswing. Maybe it’s the fear that grocery stores might not be able to keep up with demand. Maybe it’s a yearning to get back to our roots. Maybe it’s the desire to obtain wild food, free from the unnatural additives and preservatives found in much of our food supply today.
Whatever their reason, folks are out searching for wild eats. Mushrooms are a popular target, but not always a safe one. There are mushrooms out there that will make you deathly ill. Or worse.
To safely forage for edible mushrooms, I always recommend going with an experienced forager in your area a few times before going out on your own. Not only can they teach you what mushrooms in your area are safe to eat, they can show you what habitat and time of the year when those species are available, making finding them in the future much easier.
Sauté the mushrooms until the surface is slightly crisp and the interior is cooked through.
If you don’t have an experienced mushroom hunter to show you the ropes, get not one, but two, good reference books with clear color photo close-ups and detailed descriptions. Cross-reference any new mushrooms you find in both publications. If the physical appearance matches up to both books, then you should be pretty safe in taking it home.
Pear-shaped puffballs can often be found growing on decomposing timber.
For many areas of the country, a great starter mushroom is up and growing right now. Puffballs can range from tiny pear-shaped fungi growing on decomposing timber all the way up to basketball-sized globes that magically appear in grassy fields. You might even find one of the giant puffballs growing in your yard.
Giant puffballs can be as large as basketballs, but smaller, younger specimens are better for the table.
What makes the puffball such a good beginner mushroom is that, regardless of species or size, there are two hard and fast rules to tell you that it is safe to eat.
The first is that there should be no gills present around the base of the mushroom. It should be smooth and firm on the surface.
The second can be found once the mushroom is sliced open. If the inside is snow white, it’s a safe puffball. If you find a dark or even black interior, or if you discover a brown or tan outline of a mushroom inside, leave it behind. The interior should be completely white and feel a bit like a marshmallow or fresh mozzarella cheese to the touch.
The interiors of edible puffball mushrooms should be solid white and puffy to the touch.
Like many wild mushrooms, puffballs are best when young. Puffballs with a little age, especially the larger varieties, can be tough. They are also prone to insect damage. Older puffballs will start to darken and dry out inside in preparation for a spore release.
Our favorite way to cook puffballs, particularly the smaller varieties, is simply to slice and sauté them in butter with a bit of garlic and a pinch of salt. You can also batter and fry them.
Smaller puffball varieties can be sliced and sautéed in garlic butter for a nice side dish.
For the giant puffball varieties, slice the mushrooms into thin rounds or strips before cooking. For a different preparation, slice large mushrooms into 1/2- to 3/4-inch-thick rounds, cook through either on the stovetop or in the oven, then use the slice as a pizza crust for personal-sized pizzas.
The skin on some varieties of giant puffballs can also be tough, so some foragers prefer to remove it as part of the preparation. I find a sharp fillet knife to be the most efficient tool for this. Just peel it like a large apple or potato.
If you discover a trove of giant puffballs, consider turning some of them into jerky. Just slice the mushrooms into thin strips and use your favorite venison jerky recipe. The mushrooms absorb the marinade flavor well. Dry the mushroom jerky in your dehydrator or on a smoker at the coolest temperature possible. I prefer 185 degrees or less so that the mushrooms dry slowly and absorb lots of smoky flavor. Pull the mushrooms when they are leathery in texture. Don’t overdry, or the jerky will be crunchy.
Excess puffballs can also be sliced and dried completely, then ground into mushroom powder. It makes a great seasoning for steaks or anything else that benefits from the rich umami flavor of the mushrooms.