I recently read that inhalation of the spores of some puffballs belonging to the Lycoperdaceae family can cause a lung disease called lycoperdonosis, an inflammation of the alveoli that may lead to lung damage, liver damage and coma in severe cases. I must have inhaled large quantities of puffball spores as I was always playing with them as a youngster. It was fun to make a spore cloud by stomping on the mature puffball and the spores also made wonderful make-believe “food” for my tea set. Fortunately for me a very large number of puffball spores must be inhaled to cause lycoperdonosis. For that reason it is a rather rare condition.
One of the puffballs that causes lycoperdonosis is the gem-studded puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum). A saprobe (survives by decomposing dead or decaying organic matter, not living wood), the gem-studded puffball is also called the devil’s snuffbox. Common and widespread throughout North America and Europe, the gem-studded puffball prefers woodlands but also can be found in urban settings.
Variable in appearance, the gem-studded puffball has a prominent stem and rounded top. At maturity a central opening develops though which the spores are liberated by raindrops or wind. White when young this puffball turns buff or brownish as it matures. The top is covered in conical spines when young. As the gem-studded puffball matures the spines rub off leaving scars where they were attached. The gleba (internal spore-producing tissue) is white, firm and fleshy at first becoming yellow and soft with time and finally turning brown as the spores mature.
When the gleba is white and firm gem-studded puffballs are edible, but not very tasty. Care must be taken when eating gem-studded puffballs because they resemble some poisonous Amanita species. All puffballs should be cut vertically to ascertain that there are no developing stems and caps, indicative of the toxic Amanitas. The gem-studded puffball fruiting bodies accumulate lead and mercury. Although I have tasted gem-studded puffballs, I refrain from eating them because of the heavy metal accumulation.
These gem-studded puffballs, also seen by the scientific name L. gemmatum in the literature were growing near the Bogus Creek put-in (kayaking) on the North Umpqua River in Oregon.