Phylum: Basidiomycota - Class: Agaricomycetes - Order: Agaricales - Family: Agaricaceae
Lycoperdon perlatum, the Common Puffball, is an edible fungus. Only young specimens should be collected, as once the spore mass begins turning yellow the fungi are unsuitable for eating.
Although found most often in woodlands of all types, the Common Puffball can also occur in grassland. Only occasionally do singletons appear; more often these puffballs are gregarious, with group sizes of between three and ten being most common. At maturity, a small hole opens at the top of the fruitbody. When the mature puffball is compressed, either by being hit by raindrops or by a passing animal, a smoke-like cloud of spores is ejected.
Widespread and common in Britain and Ireland, the Common Puffball usually fruitsin small groups or lines in grassland and woodland habitats. Lycoperdon perlatum is a worldwide fungus. This puffball is also very common and widespread throughout mainland Europe and Asia as well as Africa, Australia, and South and Central America.
This edible fungus was described by Christiaan Hendrik Persoon in 1796, when he named it Lycoperdon perlatum - still its accepted scientific name today. Even so, Lycoperdon perlatum has acquired a few synonyms over the past couple of centuries; they include Lycoperdon gemmatum Batsch, Lycoperdon perlatum var. perlatum Pers., Lycoperdon gemmatum var. perlatum (Pers.) Fr., Lycoperdon bonordenii Massee, and Lycoperdon perlatum var. bonordenii (Massee) Perdeck.
When this gastromycete fungus was first described in scientific literature, by Christian Hendrik Persoon in 1796, it was given the specific epithet perlatum, which simply means 'widespread'; it might equally have justified the alternative 'vulgaris', because it is one of the commonest of fungi, particularly in woodland habitats. (The pearly pimples on the surface of fresh Common Puffballs are sometimes cited as a reason for the specific name.)
The genus name Lycoperdon literally means 'wolf's flatulence' and begs the question who got close enough to a wolf to become an expert on the matter. For most of us, surely such an odour cannot be considered a particularly helpful diagnostic feature for identifying the Common Puffball, Lycoperdon perlatum.
Typically pear shaped and 3 to 6cm across; 4 to 9cm tall. A surface covered in tiny pearl-like attachments distinguishes the Common Puffball from its many similar relatives. (At least 13 Lycoperdon species occur in the UK.) The pyramidal warts or 'pearls' are of different sizes, initially cream and then turning ochre before falling off to leave an olive-brown surface marked with faint scars where the warts used to be.
The dark area at the apex is where a pore hole develops, through which the spores are released.
Common it may be, but Lycoperdon perlatum is uncommonly beautiful in old age. The outer-peridial spines fall away to leave an exquisitely intricate ochre-and-white net pattern on the surface of the inner peridium.
The stem of a Common Puffball is more or less an inverted cone, often somewhat distorted, and contains a small amount of spongy, infertile material.
Spherical, with thick walls; 3.5-4.5µm in diameter.
Olive-brown, turning dark brown when fully mature. Within the spore-bearing gleba there is a network of occasionally-branching sterile yellowish-brown tubes (known as capillitia - singular capillitium) 3-7µm wide. Randomly distributed along the thick-walled capillitia are pores formed by narrowing of the walls.
Habitat & Ecological role
Common puffballs are saprotrophic and occur in all kinds of woodland, where they grow on the ground in leaf litter; also, less commonly, in permanent pasture and on sheep-cropped stable sand dunes. More often found in small groups rather than as singletons, the common puffball can occasionally branch like a desert cactus, but most are simple pear-shaped fruitbodies like those shown here.
July to November in Britain and Ireland.
Lycoperdon echinatum is darker, with a reddish tinge, and is covered in spines.
Lycoperdon mammiforme is white at first and then its surface breaks up into large cream scales rather than pearly warts.
Lycoperdon perlatum is not one of the 'Magnificent Seven' edible fungi featured in chapter 10 of Fascinated by Fungi, but this is a popular edible mushroom and can make a very good meal if prepared and cooked properly. Here are a couple of tips. The first important step is to remove the tough outer skin - a fiddly job perhaps best done with a sharp knife. The second point is all to do with quality: use 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.
Probably the simplest meal that you can make with puffballs is a mushroom omelet; they can also be fried 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 Common Puffballs; however, their spore-bearing inner material starts off very pale grey and gradually becomes brown or black as the spores mature. Earthballs are inedible and some of them can cause serious poisoning. The most common of these, found on woodland tracks (and sometimes along with common 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.
Above: These Common Puffballs have matured and most of the spore mass has been distributed.
There are also some poisonous gilled mushrooms which, when young, could be mistaken for Lycoperdon perlatum, the Common 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 Common 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 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, like Common Puffballs, usually reappear in the same places for many years.
Fascinated by Fungi, 2nd Edition, Pat O'Reilly 2016, reprinted by Coch-y-bonddu Books in 2022.
Pegler, D.N., Laessoe, T. & Spooner, B.M (1995). British Puffballs, Earthstars and Stinkhorns. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
British Mycological Society. English Names for Fungi
Dictionary of the Fungi; Paul M. Kirk, Paul F. Cannon, David W. Minter and J. A. Stalpers; CABI, 2008
Taxonomic history and synonym information on these pages is drawn from many sources but in particular from the British Mycological Society's GB Checklist of Fungi.
This page includes pictures kindly contributed by David Kelly.
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