Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
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Season: Summer to Fall
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The Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea)
This is a relatively safe mushroom to identify - as long as it is bigger than an orange to grapefruit or so in size. Why? When smaller, it can be mistaken for the Destroying Angel (Amanita bisporigera) in the "egg" stage. So, if you find what you think is a small Puffball, don't bother with it. It could be a smaller species of Puffball that is not edible, or possibly a Destroying Angel. Always cut a Puffball down the center from the top to bottom to be safe. It should be a uniform white inside. The Destroying Angels in the button stage are shaped like an egg on their end, not spherical like a Puffball, and when a Destroying Angel in the "egg" stage is cut down the center, you can see the outline of a mushroom shape inside. But again, just to be safe, don't bother at all with one smaller than the size of an orange to grapefruit.
The only similar looking mushroom when larger than an orange/grapefruit is the Scleroderma citrinum (common earthball, pigskin poison puffball), so check it out and make sure you recognize the difference. It has a warty looking skin, whereas the Giant Puffball is a smooth white. Also, the Giant Puffball in the edible stage is pure solid white inside where the Scleroderma citrinum is darker.
So, if you do find a Giant Puffball bigger than a grapefruit, the other cautions with this one are regarding timing, bugs and chemicals.
It must be white inside. If even a slight greenish brown or olive green, it can make you feel sick after eating it. When you see any color other than white, the spores (mushroom seeds) have begun to develop.
Another concern is chemicals. This is a mushroom that grows in grassy areas, and there is the possibility of lawn chemicals. Just make sure you know for a fact there have not been any kind of chemical put on the grass where you find one. If not sure, don't chance it.
The last concern is bugs and slugs. Most of the time, they just take bites out of the surface leaving pockmarks giving the puffball a look like the moon, but now and then, the odd thing burrows in deeper. Just be sure when you are cutting them up to cook that you look carefully - and if you use reading glasses, put them on before looking - the critters can be small! Holding each slice up to light is also a very good way to see if anything is in there.
Grassy areas where animals have been grazing, but not overgrazing, seem to be good places. Other places are grassy areas and even woods sometimes. For some reason, I see them on slopes or hills more than flat areas. Not sure that is just luck of the draw for me, or that is some kind of preference on their part. Sometimes, if you are lucky, there one will be one, or two, or three on your lawn. If you find one that has already matured to the spore stage, carefully bag it, take it home and "puff" the spores all over your grass. You just might be lucky and have them take, although the success rate is reportedly low, but it's worth a shot.
Also, my experience is that they are getting less common than they used to be. Not sure why that it is. Used to see them all the time in the 1970's, but rarely now in my area.
Preparing and cooking is straight up. Peel the skin, cut out bug bites, look for bugs deeper inside, slice and cook. You can fry in oil, broil, or bread and deep fry. Don't eat raw.
- Cap Morphology: Entire sphere you see is cap. Generally 10-70 cm (4 to 28 inches) diameter, but bigger ones have been recorded.
- Spore Bearing Surface: Inside
- Gill Attachment (how the Spore Bearing Surface is attached to the Stipe or Stem): Not applicable
- Spore print: Brown to brown with an olive-green tint. Note: if you can see those colors inside, or can get spore, you are too late to eat it
- Stipe (Stalk): Does not have one
- Partial Veil: Not applicable
- Season: Summer to Early Fall
- Habitat: Mycorrhizal. Found in grassy areas, sometimes in wooded areas.
- Notes: Only slightly close look alike, if bigger than a large orange to small grapefruit size, is the Scleroderma citrinum. Flesh must be solid white inside - carefully check to see if there are outlines of mushrooms - this would mean it is not a Giant Puffball, but another mushroom in the "egg" stage.
- Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
Before Gathering and Eating any Wild Mushroom READ THE FOLLOWING:
This is a difficult subject to approach. I've been studying mushrooms in the wild for about 30 years and they often still surprise and confuse me when identifying.
The problem for a site like this, is that 100% correct identification is absolutely necessary, but hard to do for many mushrooms - even with years of experience, let alone a newcomer to the subject. Best to have someone with genuine expertise show you. If that is not possible, please do much research on the web or with books, preferably both. Do not trust a single source of information - EVER. I have found mistakes on the web, and have even corrected errors on Wikipedia myself. You need confirmation from multiple sources. If you are serious about the subject, one book I highly recommend is "Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi by David Arora". I bought the 1986 edition in 1987 and that is what got me started seriously learning about mushrooms. David Arora is from the west coast, but what he says about east coast mushrooms matches with my experience. There are pictures, and very well thought out step by step identification sequences.
Another book which is very good, and a great guide to carry with you on gathering expeditions is "The Audubon Society Field Guild to North American Mushrooms".
Before you gather anything, you must know the most dangerous mushroom of Eastern North American - it can mean your life if you don't. It is the Destroying Angel (Amanita bisporigera). There is another Destroying Angel on the west coast, the Amanita ocreata. Please take me seriously with this, the Destroying Angels not only kill, but they kill you slowly & painfully. Don't rely on taste, people who have eaten them said, before they died, they were very good tasting. I don't think there is anything, other than maybe the Water Hemlock plant, that kills with such pain and suffering. Look them up, read about them here - KNOW THEM.
I suggest only five mushrooms for the wild food gatherer & mushroom novice to start off with. The Chanterelle, Morel, Hericium, and the Sulphur Shelf and Giant Puffball. The Morel, and Giant Puffball can often be found in urban environments. The Chanterelle, Hericium, Morel and Sulphur Shelf in the woods. The Giant Puffball can be often found in grassy areas in the country. I have seen the Sulphur Shelf in the city on rare occasions on the side of dying trees. These five are relatively straight forward to identify correctly, and do not have deadly poisonous close look-alikes - although there may be similar looking mushrooms that could make you sick - very sick, so always take identification very seriously. Also, these are not mushrooms you can usually buy in the local grocery store. Until fairly recently, Morels could not be grown in artificial environments.
The Morel is a spring season mushroom, Chanterelle, Sulphur Shelf and Giant Puffball is a summer to fall mushroom, and the Hericium is a late summer to fall mushroom, so this gives a fairly large window of time to enjoy them. PLEASE take it very slowly, do a lot of research, look at many pictures, and learn how to identify the edible ones from mushrooms that look like them - STEP by STEP with each aspect of the mushroom. Remember, though I do my best to help you identify them, this is not a dedicated identification guide, you do need to learn more than I provide.
And by the way, be careful of what other people pick. Some people go by simple rules of identification that they have learned from others that don't hold up. They may have been lucky so far, but if you eat what others have picked, you had better hope they know what they are doing. Know what you are picking, don't use simple rules except for one: If you are not absolutely, 100% sure, with each and every aspect of the mushroom, do not eat it.
Learn to take a spore print. Put a mushroom cap on white and black paper, and cover with a cup or bowl and after a couple of hours take off the cup, carefully lift up the cap and you should see a spore print. The color of the spores is an important aspect of identification. Go to the spore print link, where you will see the black and white spore print paper image. Click on it, click again and print it. Here is a link directly to it. You can print the same image below:
Print this image to take your spore print on. (William Rafti of the William Rafti Institute CC BY-SA 3.0)
The next six images are the steps in taking a spore print:
This is an Agaricus bisporus that I'm using to demonstrate taking a spore print. This one still has a bit of the partial veil left on. It is the partial veil that makes the ring on the stem.
Next, you have to take off the stem so that the cap will sit flat on the paper. If the gills are "free" - don't touch the stem, you can usually break off the stem. If the gills touch the stem, (adnate, decurrent, etc.), you are best to cut the stem off carefully with a sharp, clean knife.
Set the cap, gills down, on a piece of paper. Put a drop or two of room temperature water on the cap, but not so much that it runs down to the paper. This helps the mushroom hydrate which helps it in the process of releasing the spores.
Cover with a glass or plastic container to keep it humid inside for the mushroom.
It can take as little as a couple of hours, to 12 hours in my experience to get a good print. If you have 12 hours, leave it. If you want to eat the mushroom sooner, take a look after a couple of hours. You may not get a nice looking print, but even a few spores should reveal their color.
This is a close up of the spore print. You can see the white lines where the gills were, and the spores on either side that dropped off. This is the brown for a spore print you would expect for an Agaricus bisporus.
Remember the mushroomer's motto: When in Doubt - Throw it Out. Even experts aren't sure sometimes, and will pass on eating a mushroom unless they are sure.
One more thing I will repeat over and over. When eating anything for the first time, only have a tiny amount to make sure you are not allergic to it. This is especially true for mushrooms. Every edible mushroom creates a reaction with some people. There are two choice edible mushrooms that I am allergic too. The Oyster mushroom makes me feel like I have the flu coming on, and the Boletus edulis makes me feel hot, I break into a sweat, and feel sick to my stomach.
If you think I'm being overly cautious, think about what I read years ago (I regrettably forget the source). There are two kinds of wild mushroom eaters: Brave ones and living ones.
Identification: When reading the description for the mushrooms, refer to the chart below for what those descriptions mean.
Creator of this chart: debivort. Used under GNU Free Documentation License. Full size and source of this image here.
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