Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Flowerless Plants by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Flowerless Plants by  Anna Botsford Comstock


A common species of puffball, the three at the left showing early stages, the one at the right ripe and discharging spores.

Photo by G. F. Atkinson.


Teacher's Story

The puffballs are always interesting to children, because of the "smoke" which issues from them in clouds when they are pressed between thumb and finger. The common species are white or creamy when young; and some of the species are warty or roughened, so that as children we called them "little lambs." They grow on the ground usually, some in wet, shady places, and others, as the giant species, in grassy fields in late summer. This giant puffball always excites interest, when found. It is a smoothish, white, rounded mass, apparently resting on the grass as if thrown there; when lifted it is seen that it has a connection below at its center, through its mycelium threads, which form a network in the soil. It is often a foot in diameter, and specimens four feet through have been recorded. When its meat is solid and white to the very center, it makes very good food. The skin should be pared off, the meat sliced and sprinkled with salt and pepper and fried in hot fat until browned. All the puffballs are edible, but ignorant persons might mistake the button stages of some of the poisonous mushrooms for little puffballs, and it is not well to encourage the use of small puffballs for the table.

A common species—"the beaker puffball"—is pear-shaped, with its small end made fast to the ground, which is permeated with its vegetative threads.

The interior of a puffball, "the meat," is made up of the threads and spores. As they ripen, the threads break up so that with the spores they make the "smoke," as can be seen if the dust is examined through a microscope. The outer wall may become dry and brittle and break open to allow the spores to escape, or one or more openings may appear in it as spore doors. The spores of puffballs were used extensively in pioneer days to stop the bleeding of wounds and especially for nosebleed.


An earth-star.

Photo by Verne Morton.

In one genus of the puffball family, the outer coat splits off in points on maturing, like an orange peel cut lengthwise in six or seven sections but still remaining attached to the base. There is an inner coat that remains as a protection to the spores, so that these little balls are set each in a little star-shaped saucer. These star points straighten out flat or even curl under in dry weather, but when damp they lift up and again envelop the ball to a greater or less extent.


A big puffball.

Photo by Verne Morton.

Lesson CLXXX


Leading thought—  The puffballs are fungi that grow from the threads, or mycelium, which permeate the ground or other matter on which the puffballs grow. The puffballs are the fruiting organs, and "smoke" which issues from them is largely made up of spores, which are carried off by the wind and sown and planted.

Method—Ask the pupils to bring to school any of the globular or pear shaped fungi in the early stages when they are white, taking pains to bring them on the soil or wood on which they are growing.


1. Where did you find the puffball? On what was it growing? Were there many growing in company? Remove the puffball, and examine the place where it stood with a lens to find the matted and crisscrossed fungus threads.

2. What is the size and shape of the puffball? Is its surface smooth or warty? What is its color inside and outside?

3. Have you ever found the giant puffball, which may become four inches to four feet through? Where was it growing? Have you ever eaten this puffball sliced and fried? Do you know by the looks of the meat when it is fit to eat?

4. If the puffball is ripe, what is its color outside and in? What is the color of its "smoke"? Does the smoke come out through the broken covering of the puffball, or are there one or more special openings to allow it to escape?

5. Puff some of the "smoke" on white paper and examine it with a lens. What do you think this dust is? Of what use is it to the puffball?

6. Have you ever found what are called earth-stars, which look like little puffballs set in star-shaped cups? If you find these note the following things:

     a. Of what is the star-shaped base made? Was it always there?

     b. Let this star saucer become very dry; how does it act?

     c. Wet it; and how does it behave then?

     d. Where and how does the spore dust escape from the earth-stars?

7. For what medicinal purpose is the "smoke" of the puffball sometimes used?

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