Puffballs or Footballs
North Dakota Outdoors - Sept./Oct. 1995
by Chris Grondahl
It makes sense to me that hunting and football are often associated. Maybe
a morning grouse or pheasant hunt and then an afternoon football game at
the neighbors, or at home on your favorite sofa.
What I haven't quite figured out is the association between a puffball mushroom
and the irresistable urge to kick one while hunting or walking along your
favorite prairie hillside. It could, however, be linked to football. I remember
imagining to score a game-winning field goal as I kicked a yellowish-brown
cloud of spores perfectly through the uprights - while grouse hunting among
I hope some of you know what I'm talking about. Otherwise, I should be sidelined
briefly to explain.
The puffball mushroom is one of many simple plants belonging to the group
called fungi. Fungi are plants that lack the green particles called chlorophyll
that make grass and tree leaves green. Mold found on cheese, bread and other
food, as well as yeast and bacteria, are also forms of fungi.
These organisms grow wherever sufficient moisture and favorable heat are
present. Because they cannot manufacture food from carbon dioxide, water
and mineral salts as other plants can, fungi must consume leftover materials
from green plants, which are a source of sugar and starch. This is an enormous
benefit to man, continuing the recycling process to enrich soil that would
not support life without these organisms.
With few exceptions, all the fleshy-looking mushrooms we encounter in the
wild are saprophytes. This means they settle on and disintegrate plants
that are already dead. A walk in the woods during warm months will show
them at work on rotted trees, branches, twigs and leaves.
The life of a mushroom begins as a thin tangle of white threads called mycelium
that originate from a "seed" known as a spore. The mycelium, which
may appear like mold or feathery down from a bird, are not the root of the
plant, but actually the plant itself; the mushroom above ground being the
fruit body developed to provide and scatter more spores.
The first indication of mushroom growth is the appearance of little knobs
on the mycelium. These knobs grow out of sight underground, forming what
we later see as the stem and cap of a mushroom. As the fungi emerges, its
development above ground is rapid. To complete the life-cycle, spores mature
and the mushroom becomes darker and dries, releasing microscopic spores
to float through the air in an effort to recolonize the species.
Puffball mushrooms follow the same life cycle but look different than the
typical mushroom with which you might be familiar. They are a mushroom of
pastures, meadows and other grasslands and are globular or dome-shaped,
lacking typical narrow stems and cap of other common fungi. They are often
found in early fall, which corresponds with the opening of football and
Most puffball species are 3-8 inches in diameter, composed of compact white
flesh with varying textures. The giant puffball may grow to 15 inches in
diameter and weigh more than four pounds.
Puffballs are good to eat as long as the flesh is white, dry and compact.
As this fungi matures, it turns brown and spores mature within a sac, compared
to other typical mushrooms where spores form within gills on the underside
of the cap. It is at this stage that I have witnessed or heard stories of
outdoorsmen going out of their way to kick that game winning field-goal,
highlighted by a puff of yellowish-brown "smoke."
Maybe it's not the association with football, but some other innate characteristic
we are born with. Whatever the case, little harm is likely done by aiding
a puffball in passing on its heritage.
Photo by Harold Umber
Shown below is what remains of a once-white puffball mushroom. The entire
mushroom turns a brownish color as the spores mature. The large hole at
the top, resembling an opening in a volcano, has recently "blown"
out millions of tiny spores. These spores or "seeds" are carried
in the wind in the mushroom's attempt to carry on its existance. Often,
these mushrooms are encountered in the early fall along prairie hillsides.
Photo by Chris Grondahl
Puffballs come in varying shapes and sizes. Is the urge to kick them
a learned or instinctual response.
Chris Grondahl is a biologist with the Department's natural resources
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Last modified Mar. 30, 1996