Lycoperdon perlatum (common puffball)
Fruiting throughout the autumn, the common puffball can be recognised by the shape of the fruitbody, its fragile, conical spines and the network-like pattern which is left when these are eroded or rubbed away.
About this species
Lycoperdon perlatum is one of the characteristic autumn fungi, fruiting mainly from September to November, and found in many kinds of woodlands and occasionally in grassy places. Fruitbodies occur singly or more often in clusters, on soil and amongst leaf litter. Like other puffballs it is a saprotroph, feeding on humus and decaying organic matter. It produces spores in the billions, puffed out at maturity through a small but distinct apical pore. Fruitbodies are edible when young, and as with many fungi, are important to insects, being utilised by some species for shelter and for breeding. The rare beetle Lycoperdina bovistae, for example, occurs in the common puffball and in various other puffball species, as do various flies of the families Chloropidae, Mycetophilidae and Phoridae.
Geography & Distribution
Widely distributed and almost cosmopolitan in distribution worldwide, including many tropical regions. One of the commonest puffballs in Britain and northern Europe.
The fruitbodies are solitary or often in clusters, club-, pear-, or almost pestle-shaped, usually with a slight bump at the centre, and with a well-developed sterile base. They are usually 3-8 cm tall, 2-4 cm wide, and whitish at first, becoming cream to pale brown. At maturity they open via a well-defined apical pore. The surface of the fruitbody (exoperidium) bears fragile, white to pale brown, conical spines surrounded by a persistent circle of tiny warts, the spines being easily lost, leaving a characteristic net-like pattern. The gleba (internal spore-producing tissue) is white at first, becoming olive-brown as it matures, and eventually forms a powdery spore mass. A sterile, basal structure (pseudocolumella) is present and well-developed. The subgleba (stem tissue) is alveolate (full of small cavities) and olive- to grey-brown at maturity. The spore mass is yellow- to olive-brown. The spores are globose, finely warted, and usually 3-4 µm in diameter. A capillitium (network of sterile threads) is present, and is yellow-brown, the threads 3-7 µm wide with slightly thickened walls and scattered pores.
At maturity the fruitbodies of the common puffball, like other species of Lycoperdon, have a well-delimited apical pore through which the spores are dispersed. When the peridium or wall of the fruitbody is squeezed, tapped or struck by raindrops it acts like a bellows, causing spores to be puffed out in masses, almost smoke-like in appearance. A similar method of spore dispersal is seen in the earthstars (Geastrum species). Other puffballs may have different mechanisms. For example, in the giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) the wall of the huge fruitbodies breaks away irregularly exposing the spore mass and allowing the spores to be released by physical damage. In Bovista species the pore is irregular and the fruitbodies are free at maturity, rolling about in the wind and gradually releasing the spores.
Calvatia gigantea in situ (Image: © Malcolm Storey)
Lycoperdon perlatum is perhaps the commonest of the 13 species of the genus found in Britain, and can be recognised by the form of the spines and prominent reticulate (net-like) pattern which remains when these have been lost. A similar pattern can be seen in two other British species: L. nigrescens, a fairly common but darker puffball, in which the spines are arranged in small groups with connivent (converging and touching but not fused) tips, and in L. echinatum. The latter has much longer spines, hence its popular name, the ‘hedgehog puffball’. It is comparatively rare and found only on calcareous soil in beech woodland. Other puffballs belonging to different genera also occur in Britain, differing either in their lack of the sterile base to the fruitbody, in their method of opening, or in the structure of the capillitium (network of sterile threads). Some, for example the giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea), are quite common.
The common puffball has long been considered edible and is a culinary favourite in some countries. It is reported to have a higher protein content than many other fungi. In common with other puffballs, it has been used as a styptic, to staunch blood flow. Other reported medical uses of puffballs in general are as a painkiller, for stomach ache, and to reduce swelling, fever and coughing, although Lycoperdon perlatum is not specifically mentioned for all of these treatments.
Toxicity of the common puffball
Fruitbodies are considered edible when they are young, before the spore mass develops and whilst the gleba remains white. However, Lycoperdon perlatum has been reported to accumulate lead and mercury in its fruitbodies. Also, it is important to note that young, unexpanded fruitbodies of some Amanita species (including toxic species) can resemble puffballs. Specimens collected for eating should always be cut through vertically beforehand, when the developing cap and stem of an Amanita will be readily apparent. Inhalation of spores of L. perlatum and other puffball species can cause a lung disease known as lycoperdonosis.
Common puffball at Kew
Lycoperdon perlatum is found occasionally in the grounds at Kew, where it was first recorded in 1881 by the English mycologist Mordecai Cooke. It occurs on soil and amongst leaf litter wherever suitable habitat occurs.
Dried collections of L. perlatum from throughout its range are maintained in the behind-the-scenes Kew Mycology Herbarium. These specimens are made available for study by mycologists from around the world, by appointment.
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