Puffball Mushrooms: A Complete Guide

Written by Em Casalena
Updated: March 24, 2023
© Henri Koskinen/Shutterstock.com
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Puffball mushrooms are some of the most unique types of fungi out there. They visually appear pretty different from other types of fungi and don’t have the conventional cap and stem you’d expect from a mushroom.

So what precisely are puffball mushrooms? Several diverse types of mushrooms fall under the umbrella term “puffballs.” They develop as solid fungal spheres with no caps, stems, or gills. There are some toxic fungi that may look similar to puffballs, but all puffballs are edible when young and white. Scleroderma species are one example of mushrooms that look very similar to puffballs and slightly toxic. Destroying angel eggs, which can include the species Amanita bisporigera, Amanita ocreata, and Amanita virosa are also potential lookalikes that can be lethal. Disciseda, Daldinaia, Reicularia lycoperdon, and a wide range of stalked puffballs like Battarrea phalooides are also potential lookalikes that are easily confused for puffball mushrooms.

In this simple guide, we’ll go over what puffball mushrooms are, how to spot them when foraging, and all the many things you can do with them in this comprehensive. Additionally, we’ll show you how to produce puffballs yourself, which can be challenging, but is certainly worth a try!

Information About Puffball Mushrooms

Puffball Mushroom
ClassificationApioperdon, Bovista, Calvatia, Lycoperdon genera, among many others.
DescriptionA group of fungi that produce large, white, spongey, edible mushrooms without gills that can be either egg-shaped, pear-shaped or even shaped more like a soccer ball.
UsesCulinary and medicinal uses.
How to GrowThese mushrooms are easier to forage than grow from scratch. Few have managed to grow these mushrooms.
How to ForageSearch for large, white, and round balls near soil or decomposing logs.
Key Identifying FeaturesCan be white or brown and lack any gills, stems, and caps associated with the traditional mushroom appearance.
OriginWorldwide, though they are primarily in North America and Europe.

Puffball Mushrooms: Classification

Puffball mushrooms are a particular kind of fungus with a ball-shaped fruit body that bursts on impact and when older they will release a cloud of spores that resemble dust. Puffballs, which include the genera Apioperdon, Bovista, Calvatia, Lycoperdon and others, are part of the Basidiomycota division of fungi.

The most well-known species of puffball mushroom would be the giant puffball mushroom, which is classified as Calvatia gigantea. Although rarely some can reach diameters up to 60 inches and weights as high as 44 pounds, the majority of huge puffballs grow to be up to around 20 inches in height and occasionally as large as 35 inches in circumference. Giant puffballs that are mature have a greenish-brown inside, but juvenile puffballs have a white interior. When young, the giant puffball mushroom is edible and a popular mushroom to forage.

Puffball Mushrooms: Key Identifying Features and Appearance

While white puffball mushrooms are the most common, brown varieties also exist. Their spherical appearance, puffy interior, and peculiar spore dispersion make them relatively easy to identify. Unlike typical mushrooms, puffballs don’t have gills, stems, or even caps. The majority of them resemble little white light bulbs or an inverted pear. They are easily identifiable to the trained eye, but novice mushroom gatherers might confused them for other puffball types and potentially toxic mushrooms that look similar.

The puffball mushroom is spongy or puffy when it is young. The body responds to a light poke by springing back like a comfortable cushion. The internal flesh begins to yellow as it ages and eventually turns brown and powdery. The older puffballs produce a great cloud of dark olive green or black spores when stomped on or disturbed.

It’s important to know the potentially dangerous lookalikes that are often confused for puffballs. The genus Amanita, which include the lethal destroying angels, have a similar white roundish appearance as puffballs when they are young. When destroying angels reach maturity, that have a more “traditional” cap mushroom appearance.

Scleroderma citrinum and other Scleroderma species, which are known as earthball mushrooms, can sometimes look whitish and similar in appearance to puffballs when they are young. This mushroom can cause stomach upset and breathing difficulties if its spores are inhaled. The earthball will have much thicker, denser, and darker flesh than the puffball.

Puffball Mushrooms: Where They Grow

Puffball mushrooms can be found around the world, particularly in North America, Europe, and areas of China.

In warmer areas, puffballs can be found all year round, even in the winter. They are widely distributed and extremely versatile. They appear to be white marbles or golf balls scattered on the woodland floor or in a meadow. Every single puffball mushroom is saprophytic, which means it feeds on decomposing organic matter. On dead or dying trees and stumps, you can find Apioperdon pyriforme aka “the little stump puffball” since wood is the most common type of rotting material for this species.

Sliced puffball mushroom being prepared on a cutting board for cooking with a Ukrainian towel in the background
Puffball mushrooms (pictured) are used in cuisine in a similar fashion to tofu. They are excellent flavor absorbers.


Puffball Mushrooms: How They Are Used

You can eat giant puffballs when they are in the younger stages of development. Some claim that they just absorb the tastes surrounding them like tofu and don’t really have a taste of their own. You can potentially purchase puffballs at your local grocer or specialty store if you’re fortunate enough to reside in a region where they’re available. However, most fans of this mushroom will simply have to locate and harvest them in nature.

When harvesting a puffball, there are two key issues to think about: The mushroom must first be accurately identified, and then it must be harvested at the appropriate stage of development. Cut it open to see whether it is the correct age. Inside, there ought to be thick, firm, and white flesh. Remember, Scleroderma species are thick, firm, and white when young too. Also make sure there isn’t a gilled mushroom shape inside or you could have a destroying angel mushroom on your hands. Anything having a brown, black, purple, or yellow inside should not be consumed. Puffballs should be consumed right away because they don’t keep well. They can be used to make vegan “steaks” or even used as a gluten-free pizza crust.

In addition to cuisine, puffballs have historically been used in traditional Chinese medicine. This mushroom may muscle regeneration and hemostasis. The puffball mushroom may reduce pain and inflammation, according to recent research, although the precise mechanism underlying this benefit is yet unknown.

Just as well, the Lakota Native American tribe employed dried spores from enormous puffball mushrooms in their traditional medicines. They would place puffball spores in major wounds to halt bleeding and aid in blood clotting. When used as a coagulant, the dried spores were said to reduce bleeding, though there is little scientific research to back this claim up.

Puffball Mushrooms: Where They Are Purchased

Puffball mushrooms’ prime season is summer to late autumn, but they are rarely found in grocery stores. Around this season, consumers can look for fresh and dried puffball throughout the Midwestern United States.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find puffball mushrooms in grocery stores or specialty shops. These mushrooms are not cultivated as a crop like white button mushrooms and other culinary mushrooms are. You may be able to search online specialty shops for puffball mushrooms, but it is almost impossible. Growing puffball mushrooms at home is similarly difficult, and many online retailers that sell puffball mushroom “spores” could potentially be scams. Your best best is to harvest them in the wild.

The Puffball Mushroom Life Cycle and Behavior

The Lycoperdaceae family contains many of the real puffballs and they will form a mushroom when the correct circumstances, such as humidity, temperature, and day length, are present. The puffball mushroom matures into a fruit over the course of many weeks(though some species can grow faster) that contains astronomically large quantities of tiny spores. One single giant puffball mushroom can have upwards of seven trillion spores in it. Once the spores have matured inside the puffball, they will be released for the wind to carry. When foraging, take caution since stomping on the puffball will also unleash them all at once and they aren’t the best thing to breathe in.

As decomposers of decaying organic material including leaves, wood, etc… puffball mushrooms play a significant role in maintaining the ecosystem. Saprotrophs like puffball mushrooms absorb nutrients directly through the organic matter around it using a number of enzymes that the mushroom excretes.

Giant Puffball Mushroom next to tree.
Puffball mushrooms (pictured) can be difficult to grow intentionally, though it is certainly not impossible!


How to Grow Puffball Mushrooms

Puffballs are perhaps one of the more challenging natural mushrooms to produce. However, the procedure is simple, so giving it a shot is not harmful. They can possibly be grown by inoculating some distilled water with puffball spores. Give it two days to spawn, then scatter it across fertile grassy places and pray for the best. The likelihood that puffballs will develop that year or the following year increases if you do this more frequently.

Puffballs develop from new spores, and your chances of getting them to grow properly are slim. It may take many months for the mushrooms to develop and generate new puffballs above ground, even if you are successful in getting them to grow. Few have succeeded in growing puffball at home, so it may be a better use of your time to forage for them in the wild instead.

Find a mature puffball mushroom on your property or wherever you go mushroom foraging to get started. The most crucial step is this one. A mature puffball mushroom that hasn’t yet burst open and emitted spores is what you’re looking for. The end of the summer is the greatest time to search for them. You might not have enough time to grow them again that year if you wait until early fall, but give it a go!

One gallon of distilled water, salt, and a jar of molasses are all required. Choose an unopened jar for the molasses to avoid contaminating it with other items in your kitchen. The distilled water should be handled similarly; to minimize the risk of contamination, use jugs that have not been opened. We advise you to purchase multiple jugs. Your odds of success increase as your resources increase. There is plenty of molasses in one jar to fill many jugs.

The gallon jug of distilled water should now have one teaspoon of molasses and a pinch of salt added. Then, gently poke a small hole in the puffball mushroom and squeeze the spores inside after giving it a final stir. Do this outside because you’ll probably spread spores everywhere. You might want to wear a mask to avoid the potential for Lycoperdonosis, though this disease is very rare and puffball spores are generally not dangerous to breathe in. In order to disperse the spores uniformly, replace the lid tightly and shake the container.

For two days, store the jug in a cool, dark location. During this period, don’t touch it or open it. Find some rich grassy areas and scatter the mixture there after two days. Use at least a half-gallon for each area. So that you have enough to disseminate, it’s preferable to make three to five gallons of your spore mixture. Puffballs like soils high in nitrogen, so try to look for those regions that have recently received fertilization to boost your chances of successfully growing puffballs. Puffballs are hyperaccumulators, so be wary of which type of fertilizer you choose to apply to the area.

Puffball mushrooms are fascinating mushrooms, and they are a true delight to forage. If you happen to grow or find a puffball mushroom while foraging in the woods, just be sure that your ID is correct, the mushroom is completely white, and that it is the appropriate maturity to eat. The puffball really is a versatile little (or big) mushroom!

The Featured Image

giant puffball mushrooms in wild
Most giant puffball mushrooms don't taste like much, so they play well with other flavors.
© Henri Koskinen/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

I'm a lover of all things sustainability, from urban farming to not killing houseplants. I love carnivorous plants, indigenous crops, and air-cleansing indoor plants. My area of expertise lies in urban farming and conscious living. A proud Southwest Institute of Healing Arts graduate and certified Urban Farming instructor.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are puffball mushrooms edible?

Puffball mushrooms are edible so long as the inside of their “puffs” are consistently white in color.

What do puffball mushrooms taste like?

Puffball mushrooms are relatively flavorless and are often used in the same way as tofu by cooking them with other flavors so that they will absorb them. They have a very mild earthy and nutty flavor.

Are puffball mushrooms poisonous?

Puffball mushrooms are not poisonous. However, eating a puffball when it is still in the egg stages can cause stomach upset. Some individuals may be allergic to puffball mushrooms as well.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

  1. Michael Kuo, Available here: https://www.mushroomexpert.com/calvatia_gigantea.html
  2. Pat O'Reilly, Available here: https://www.first-nature.com/fungi/calvatia-gigantea.php
  3. David Landers, Available here: https://blog.mycology.cornell.edu/2006/10/26/giant-puffballs-calvatia-gigantea/