It has been a dry September, although that is not particularly unusual in Norfolk. But rain at the end of August and very early in September made this a good year for the Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantea. This is one of my favourite fungi: easy to identify, good to eat and spectacular in size.
The Giant Puffball occurs in Europe and North America on roadsides, in nettle beds, in meadows and fields and in deciduous forests. It is relatively common in the UK but is rare in Lithuania, protected in parts of Poland and considered to be of conservation concern in Norway. The fungus’ spectacular fruitbody is usually found in late summer and early autumn. However, the hot and dry early summer of 2006 was followed by heavy rain in early August and this caused Giant Puffballs to appear in large quantities.
The Giant Puffball is a large white globe around the size of a football (or soccerball if you’re American). It has no stem or gills, but attaches at the base to a fine strand, which connects to its mycelium growing beneath the soil. The diameter is usually around 30cm (12 inches) but the biggest specimen recorded was 162cm in diameter (64 inches). It is an unmistakeable fungus – although John Wright (“Mushrooms”, River Cottage Handbook No. 1, Bloomsbury 2007) admits to clambering into a field to pick a white duck!
The Giant Puffball is basically a bag of spores. If you want to eat your specimen, cut it open to check that it is pure white inside its skin , which feels like kid leather. Older specimens start to turn yellow and then olive-brown as the spores inside mature. Eventually the skin splits open and the spore-bearing material inside (the gleba) takes on the texture of crumbling foam rubber and masses of spores are released every time the puffball is disturbed, perhaps 7 trillion per puffball.
Last year I collected a Giant Puffball while out on a cycle ride in North Norfolk. It looked fresh enough, but I didn’t cut it open until I reached home, at which point I discovered that the inside was a yellowy-brown colour. So I left it on our back lawn and throughout the winter I kicked it around to disperse the spores whenever I went out into the garden. Whether I’ll ever have my own crop of Giant Puffballs is debatable – they are said to be difficult to cultivate.
I’ve only ever cooked Giant Puffballs by dipping slices in egg and breadcrumbs and frying them. The pieces melt in the mouth and have a texture like the very best tofu. More elaborate recipes exist and one day I hope to try The Puffburger recipe in John Wright’s book.
The Giant Puffball has been used in medicine. It was cut into strips and used as a styptic dressing for wounds. Young fruitbodies contain calvacin, which acts against tumours, but it is only present in minute amounts.
Smouldering pieces of Giant Puffballs and other fungi were sometimes used as a soporific by beekeepers to calm their bees and allow access to the hive. Another use was as tinder – a means of carrying fire from one place to another in the days before the invention of matches.
The scientic name Calvatia means ‘bald head or skull’ and gigantea means ‘giant’ – so the Giant Puffball means ‘giant bald skull’. Perhaps that’s another reason why I feel an affinity with this fungus.