For many, fall is best appreciated for the beautiful display of leaf color and irresistible weather – typically mild, sunny and dry here in central Indiana. This fall, however, conditions were right for recognizing an old favorite in the landscape – giant puffball mushrooms. We’ve found many of these delightful specimens throughout the IMA gardens; they keep popping out all over the place! Giant puffballs are often found in more open woods and grassy areas, which makes them both visible and easily accessible. Sadly, a good number were kicked apart prematurely by folks attempting to explode the trillions of spores encased inside the ballooning gleba (white mass that houses the spores) and release a puffy cloud of spores into the air. I realize it’s irresistible, the desire to destroy these alien-looking, spongy bubbles. How can one deny an urge that so exemplifies the spirit of a child’s delight with nature? Yet I know that the anticipation was met with a rather anticlimactic squelching; the spores were not yet ripe. The result was a disappointingly flat pile of flaky white chunks that just doesn’t garner the same reaction as that of a soaring spore cloud.
The mushrooms were fresh and new, with firm white flesh that is at its best for flavor and edibility. It’s not until the puffball has turned brown, discolored and inedible, when the outer flesh has started to break apart, that they are primed and ready to be sent sailing through the air. I wish people would wait until the mushrooms are ready, when they aren’t as visually appealing, so other people can enjoy seeing them in the garden and perhaps have the opportunity to share something unfamiliar and intriguing with their kiddos. Please consider this before acting on perfunctory impulse.
Let’s explore a bit further into the fungi behind the fun, and gain a better understanding of just how incredible these giant puffballs are. Fungi are in their own kingdom classification; they are not plants, as was once thought, because they cannot generate their own food. By absorption via a complex branching colony of fungal cells called a mycelium, nutrients are acquired through a process which aids in the decomposition of organic matter found in the soil. Interestingly, fungi are the only organisms that are able to naturally process lignin, the tough, woody tissue that gives shrubs and trees their strength and provides structural support. Nothing else is able to so efficiently release nutrients back into the soil for the support of its ecosystem, and most of the process is hidden from sight. Mycelia secrete enzymes that break down organic matter and allow fungal cells to absorb nutrients through its cell walls, which explains why mycelium is usually hidden from sight in wood or soil – that’s where the supply is found. The best part is that fungi are not the only ones to benefit. In fact, a symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants exists with 90% of all plants found on land, where both organisms benefit from living in close proximity to each other. Mycelia improve soil structure so trees and other plant roots in the surrounding area are better able to access available water and minerals. Plants photosynthesize light energy into carbohydrates, which are transported to the root zone where fungi can “feed” on the higher concentration of sugars. All of this is happening with the structural part of fungi, the mycelium, but how do giant puffball mushrooms fit into the picture?
Giant puffball mushrooms, or Calvatia (syn. Langermannia) gigantea, are the fruiting structure of the fungus. An easy analogy is to think of the mushroom as the “apple” portion of an apple tree, while the mycelium plays the role of the actual tree. Mushrooms are designed for one thing: making babies. In the case of giant puffballs, they can produce trillions of spores – up to 2500 per inch – because of their enormous size. All the spores are produced internally, which may seem less efficient, but from the perspective of the actual scattering of spores, it’s quite effective. When the spores have matured, the surface of the mushroom breaks down and tears open, where wind, water or physical contact can aid the spores’ escape. Perhaps the natural desire to kick giant puffballs is really part of the mushroom’s plan to take over the world…I guess we’ll keep playing along!
Here’s an internal look at spore arrangement in giant puffballs with Director of Horticulture, Chad Franer: