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 buffaloberry clumps.

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 grouse seasons.

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 division.

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