The Basidiomycetes are fungi that bear spores on (not in) specialized cells called basidia. One group of Basidiomytes produce their spores externally on gills, tubes, lobes, etc, and are the typical “mushrooms” with which we are all familiar. The second group of Basidiomytes produce their spores internally (inside a spore case, a small capsule or inside the fruiting body itself). The mature spores are not forcibly ejected. These are called Gasteromycetes or “stomach fungi”.
Leonard and I recently found some Gasteromytes on a hillside along Modoc National Forest Road 40N11 near Adin CA (Modoc County). These western giant puffballs (Calvatia booniana) grow on sagebrush steppe habitats and open grassy areas in arid and semi-arid areas of western North America.
Puffballs have a fleshy interior (gleba) surrounded by a skin called the peridium. Many members of the puffball group have a sterile base, but in the western giant puffball the sterile base is rudimentary or absent.
Western giant puffballs are round or lobed and somewhat flattened or depressed on the top. The puffball can grow as large as 24 inches in width and 12 inches in height. They are attached to the substrate (soil) at a central point and can be easily detached.
The thick outer peridium is originally white and with age becomes buff or tan and eventually turns brown. Originally large warts cover the peridium surface. With time the warts flatten and separate to form scales (plaques or plates). Eventually the peridium thins and disintegrates releasing the spores.
When young, the gleba is white and has the texture of a marshmallow. The gleba is where the spores are formed. As the gleba matures and the spores form, it begins to self-digest becoming watery and gluey. The color of the gleba turns from white to greenish yellow then olive and finally a dark brown. Once the self-digestion process is complete the moisture gradually escapes from the gleba leaving a mass of round, smooth (or sometimes minutely spiney) dry spores. When the peridium disintegrates (or an animal or human steps on the puffball) the spores are released and spread by the wind. I remember as a child loving to stomp on a dry puffball and create a cloud of “spore dust”. OK! I still like to do that.
Western giant puffballs are edible when the gleba is immature – pure white without a trace of color. Maggots also love gleba, so any puffballs with maggots present should also not be consumed. I generally will not eat fungi, but giant puffballs are one of the few exceptions. The gleba (with the peridium removed) has the texture of a firm tofu and can be sliced sauteed or cubed and used in soups or even eaten raw. One must always check to be certain that a small puffball is not a poisonous immature Amanita mushroom before ingesting it. For that reason I will not eat small puffball species but always stick to the giant puffballs. Also, giant puffballs can be laxative for some people, so before eating puffballs they should be “tested” and eaten in moderation.
Dried giant puffballs were formerly used as sponges, tinder, dyes, and to squelch bleeding.
Leonard and I did not eat the pictured western giant puffball, but did enjoy the gleba from some if its younger, nearby neighbors.