Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for November 2001

This month's fungus is Lycoperdon pyriforme, the wolf-fart puffball

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Lycoperdon pyriforme puffingThis month's fungus is a puffball, so-called because of its circular shape and ability to have its spores "puffed" out of a hole dissolved in the top. This puffing requires some outside mechanical force, such as rain falling on the fruiting body, some animal stepping on or brushing against the fruiting body, or curious mycologists tapping or squeezing the fruiting body. This fungus is considered to be a member of the class Gasteromycetes. We have always known that the class Gasteromycetes (literally "stomach fungi") is an artificial taxonomic assemblage of fungi.

The Gasteromycetes all have basidiospore maturation prior to the spores being exposed to the air. in addition there is no fertile layer of basidia, as in the Hymenomycetes, the class to which most of the familiar fungi belong. The basidiospores of the Hymenomycetes are also forcibly discharged, unlike the Gasteromycetes, which must have their spores dispersed by some outside force, usually wind, rain, bacterial or fungal degradation, or animals such as insects. Other fungi included in this class are Calvatia gigantea (giant puffball), the stinkhorns, bird's nest fungi, and the cannonball fungus. I'll tell you more later about the interesting things molecular biology has been telling us about relationships of the Gasteromycetes with other fungi.

Lycoperdon pyriforme before puffing

Like, the giant puffballs, Lycoperdon pyriforme and its relatives are edible if you find them early enough, before the white gleba turns yellow, then green then brown. The texture is somewhat like a marshmallow, or maybe old marshmallow creme. I much prefer the flavor of the giant puffballs to these smaller ones, which are usually only 1-1.5 inches (3-6 cm) in diameter. However, I know at least three other people who have the opposite opinion. However there are some additional cautions about eatig these small puffballs. You should make sure the inside is pure white, never dark, and that the outer skin of the puffball is thin. many Lycoperdon pyriforme at the edible stage If the inside is dark from the start and the outer skin is thick you probably have Scleroderma, one of the earth balls. Click here for more information about these poisonous lookalikes. With the smaller puffballs, you must also make sure that the entirety of the fruiting body is homogeneous, consistently the marshmallow texture. You should slice down the center of every puffball you eat to make sure there is not a pre-formed mushroom primordium inside. If so, it is likely to be a button of the death angels, Amanita bisporigera, Amanita virosa, and Amanita verna. As you can guess from the name, you do *not* want to eat death angels.

There are old wives' tales (why don't old husbands get tales?) about kicking or squishing the puffballs and getting the spores in your eyes, which supposedly will make you blind. There is no truth to that. However, Lycoperdon spores can be harmful if large amounts of the spores are inhaled. An incident occurred several years ago in West Bend, Wisconsin. Some of the students were sold some Lycoperdon fruiting bodies but someone who told them they were hallucinogenic 'shrooms, and that they should puff out the spores and inhale them. Lycoperdon pyriforme hit with a stick by Sean WestmorelandBad idea! The students had such an overload of spores in their lungs that the spores were actually able to germinate and grow into hyphae, causing severe congestion and respiratory problems. Fortunately, Lycoperdon is not a very good pathogen, and the students survived after treatment with antifungal drugs. I don't have any information on what happened to the person who sold them the puffballs, but I hope it was something bad. You should always be careful about what you put into your body.

So where does the common name "Wolf-fart puffball" come from? I teach a course here called "Latin and Greek for Scientists," and so I know that "lyco" means wolf in Greek; "perdon" means "to break wind" in Greek, so the two combine to mean "wolf-fart." The epithet "pyriforme" means "pear shaped," so the common name for this could just as easily be the "pear shaped puffball." However, I think the "wolf-fart puffball" is much more fun, don't you think?

Lycoperdon, Lycopodium, Lycogala, Lycopersicon-- Dances with WolvesThere are several other organisms that use lyco in their name (oddly enough the wolf itself is in the genus Canis, along with the dog). Some of these "lyco" organisms are pictured to the left. Lycoperdon is to the front. The pinkish spheres to the back are Lycogala, the wolf's milk slime mold, likely so named for its resemblance to the mammary glands of wolves (where do mycologists come up with this stuff?). The green plant to the left is Lycopodium, wolf's foot, a primitive seedless vascular plant sometimes known as club moss, even though it's not a moss at all. The tomato is Lycopersicon lycopersicum, the "wolf's peach." Betcha didn't know that!

Of course I have entitled this picture "Dances with Wolves."

I hope you enjoyed learning something about puffballs today. They're lots of fun to find in the woods. Just don't sniff too closely when you puff them!

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