Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for June 2003

This month's fungus is Pisolithus tinctorius, the "dog turd" fungus, also known in more polite company as the dyemaker's puffball.

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Pisolithus tinctorius, old stageI can hear you thinking, "This is the most beautiful Fungus of the Month ever...." Well maybe not, but this month's fungus is useful and appealing in many other ways.

I can still remember the first time I saw this fungus in nature. I was on one of the Alexander H. Smith Lake States Forays in the early 1990's (way back in the last century...) with other midwestern mycologists, and a jokester grad student found this fungus. He thought he had found some dog droppings, and, trying to make a joke, he brought it on the end of a stick to his professor, saying, "Look at the nice fungus I found for you." However the joke was on the student, because he had actually found Pisolithus tinctorius! Ever since then I have called it the dog turd fungus. I have also seen it called "dead man's fist" (not dead man's fingers), dyemaker's false puffball, and simply "dyeball." In my experience, this fungus can most commonly be found growing associated with conifers (or occasionally oaks) in areas that are very sandy or otherwise have very poor soil. Pisolithus tinctorius is widely distributed throughout North America and other continents, and I have personally seen it in Wisconsin, Mississippi, northern California, Florida, and Massachusetts. It's always a fun find and can be very abundant in some areas. Maybe you can play some tricks on your mushroom hunting companions if you find it.

Pisolithus tinctorius can show up in some other interesting places. The following is part of an email correspondence I had last year:

Email from Lucinda Swatzell, Southeast Missouri State University:

I am writing on behalf of Tom Blackledge, keeper of the wolves, large cats, etc. at the Phoenix Zoo. Mr. Blackledge expressed concern over large fruiting bodies that are colonizing or appearing on wolf feces. These fungi also appear on sites of hosed down runoff from the meat-cutting lab (meat for animal consumption). The appearance of this fungus may be cause for concern because of the danger of exposure to human wolf feces and the large number of pathogens that are present and harmful to humans.

The colonization is, of course, confined and zoo patrons are not directly exposed (i.e. eating the feces), however, it would be helpful to know the identity of the fungus. Can you assist Mr. Blackledge? I have a sample in my lab that I can send you....

These are mushrooms that grow directly on the feces. They are about the size of a grapefruit. They are dried and yes, there are numerous spores. I have it in a ziplock bag. I can send this too you. In addition, I can request that Mr. Blackledge send wolf feces.... Whatever you want. I am grateful for any information you can supply.

I eventually got the fungus in the mail (I diplomatically declined the feces...) and wrote back:

Greetings from Wisconsin. I just got back from break and your package of fungus arrived today. It appears to be Pisolithus tinctorius, aka the dyemaker's mushroom or--- get this-- the dog turd fungus. I've actually had someone at a mushroom foray collect this as a joke, thinking it was dog droppings!

This fungus is not growing directly on the feces, but is mycorrhizal with the roots of nearby trees. i.e. it forms a mutualistic association with the roots of trees. I am guessing there are oaks or conifers like pine or spruce nearby. I am guessing that the wolf feces are providing some extra nutrients to the fungus and allowing it to fruit in that area. The added water from the runoff is also making the fungus fruit in that area.

So far as I know no person or other animal has been harmed by this fungus either from its spores or from eating it.

I get the most interesting email of anyone I know.

Pisolithus longitudinal section of young fbThe other common name for this fungus is the "dyemaker's puffball," so-called because of its use in dyeing wool. Yes, dyeing wool! There is a very interesting and rather large "subculture" of people who are interested in mushrooms and other fungi mainly because they can dye wool with them. I've already described some of this subculture on this page . Of course you can't dye wool very well with this fungus once the spores are mature-- you have to find it in a much younger stage, as shown to the right. You can see where the genus Pisolithus (literally "pea stone") gets it name by observing the pea-shaped peridioles, which break down to release the spores. In this photo you can also trace the development of new peridioles from the basal area, where they are small and yellow, to the upper area, where they expand and become brown with spores.

It's very interesting to see what colors you can get from different mushrooms. Many are not what you'd expect at all. Surprisingly many brightly colored mushrooms won't dye wool at all-- fungi like chanterelles, Laetiporus sulphureus, red Russulas, and bright colored Amanita species like Amanita muscaria have no dyeing ability at all. Some fungi that are popular for dyeing wool are Cortinarius (Dermocybe) semisanguineus, Hapalopilus nidulans, and Hydnellum species, to name but a few. Pisolithus tinctorius imparts a reddish brown to black sort of color to the wool. Another important point to remember (despite the workshop announcement below at the 2001 NEMF in Connecticut ) is that we're talking about dyeing with mushrooms not dying from mushrooms...

NEMF 2001 in CT, workshop --Dyeing from mushrooms Pisolithus tinctorius is a member of the Gasteromycetes, an unnatural grouping of basidiomycete fungi in which the basidia mature inside an enclosed area before the fruiting body is mature. This is an unnatural group, because we now know, through DNA analysis, that the Gasteromycetes really belong to many other evolutionary or phylogenetic groups. For example, the true puffballs (Lycoperdales, e.g. Lycoperdon pyriforme and Calvatia gigantea) seem to be rather closely related evolutionarily to members of the genus Agaricus, which includes the pizza mushroom, Agaricus bisporus, and the Prince, Agaricus augustus. Other Gasteromycetes (literally, "stomach fungi") include the stinkhorns. the bird's nest fungi, and the false puffballs. This last group, also known as the Sclerodermatales ("hard-skinned" fungi), is where Pisolithus belongs, along with Scleroderma. According to DNA evidence, these false puffballs are evolutionarily related to the boletes, such as Boletus edulis and Gyroporus castaneus.

Like the boletes, Pisolithus tinctorius is a mycorrhizal fungus, which means that it gets its nutrition in a mutualistic association with the roots of trees, mostly with conifers, but sometimes oaks. Remember that in a mycorrhizal association such as this, both partners benefit. This fungus is very useful in reclamation and reforestation of disturbed and poor soils, such as strip mines. It can survive low pH (high acidity), high concentrations of heavy metals, and high soil temperatures in the summer, along with the accompanying drought. It is also useful in the restrictive environment of nurseries. It seems to be a "super-mycorrhiza," and inoculum of "P.t." in the form of spores can be commercially purchased. So even in the "world's ugliest fungus" there is still some good.

I hope you enjoyed learning something about the "lovely" Pisolithus tinctorius today. Although it won't win any beauty contests, it's a very important fungus in the natural environment and in the reclamation and reforestation of land.

If you have anything to add, or if you have corrections, comments, or recommendations for future FotM's (or maybe you'd like to be co-author of a FotM?), please write to me at

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