Tuesday, 27 February 2007

#10 Life cycle of a Puffball

It's more than just a dull, round, white blob in the grass - it's an intriguing life form. A puffball. Generally they are whitish, roundish, varying from marble-sized to gigantic washdish-sized, and have a tendancy to explode.

My puffball study subject on day 4

Of course that is a gross generalisation. There are many bizarre puffballs, some of which I have found around the Hunter Valley and will share in the future.

A puffball is a fungus that has an outer casing in which the spores are contained. Upon maturity, the fruiting fungus body will perforate in some manner to expose the spores which will then spread by various means.

A puffball study

Calvatia cyathiformis, often rererred to as the Purple-spored Puffball, can pop up at any time of year under damp conditions, but as with most fungi, it's main fruiting period is autumn and early winter. [Note: I do not have the technical expertise to confidently identify fungi, but a process of elimination makes my identification here likely.]

Day 6 - tesselated cracking

The habitat for my extended observation was an unimproved grazing paddock. Weather conditions throughout the study in November were varied. Maximum daytime temperatures ranged from 20s to 40s, with some very strong north-westerly winds and cool southerly breezes, along with a few short light to heavy showers.

Calvatia cyathiformis is a terrestrial puffball, relatively smooth and spherical or slightly flattened when young, often becoming pear-shaped as it matures.

On day 4 (first image), the outer skin started to split revealing the firm white marshmallow-looking gleba. When the interior of these puffballs is firm and white they are apparently edible, but wild fungi are not on my menu, so I can't vouch for their palatability.

Day 10 - skin loosens and begins to break away

The skin dried and started cracking on day 5. By day 6 (second image) the tesselated surface revealed the fleshy spore-bearing mass beginning to turn purple, and by day 8 had started lifting. I took photographs every two or three days.

Day 20 - the puffball skin has fallen away

I was rather surprised that the 'peeling' process took so long in the wet, windy conditions. The fragile structure didn't completely fall apart in the rain, instead, the rain just served to finish the discarding of the protective skin exposing the crumbling mature purplish spore mass to the elements.

Day 23 - the spore mass begins to disperse

The spore mass did not disperse all at once. Some broke off in clumps with the westerly winds, and some blew in the other direction with the southerlies. The spores continued to spread with a fine dusting around the fungus site, and after a heavy shower on day 29 the spores were completely dispersed, leaving the remaining soft leathery cup-shaped sterile base lightly rooted to the ground.

Day 29 - dispersal of spores is complete

During my month-long study, there were only a couple of horses in the paddock, but on day 30, cows were introduced to the paddock and a cow pie was deposited fair on top of the spent fungus, so I was lucky to complete my fungus observations.

Distorted shapes of Calvatia cyathiformis

Amazingly, if you inadvertently up-root one from it's foundations, it will still mature and complete it's life cycle without means of obtaining water or nutrients from the substrate. And as it does not produce chlorophyl, it also does not need sunlight.

Fungus season is approaching, so you might see these and other species of puffball popping up in your yard, local reserves or on roadside verges. They are not some dreadful lawn pest, but the marvelous reproductive vessel of a fungus that is going about it's valuable recycling work in the soil below.


Esperance Blog said...

Very interesting Gaye. Going on reproductive strategy, those that produce the most off-spring/seed/spores/etc, usually mean the chances of reaching maturity are slight. By the number of spores in puffballs it must be a very hazardous journey indeed.


owadefa said...

nice to see them all the way to decay HV

Gaye from the Hunter said...

Hello Jack, considering the extent of acceptable growing conditions of some puffballs, one would wonder at the necessity for millions of spores per fruiting body, really.

But I am happy that they pop up on roadsides and in paddocks making them easy to observe. I have never had Calvatia cyathiformis appear in my yard, so maintained grass must not be suited to their growth. I have, however, had other species of puffballs appear often in my yard.


Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi owadefa,

I'm pleased you enjoyed my puffball observations, and thank you for taking the time to comment, it is much appreciated.


MissAnthropy said...


I post this here because it's your latest article, but its a comment on your whole blog:

Your photography is absolutely breathtaking, National Geographic quality I would say. I always look at your photos when I lurk over at Scribbly too. Just recently you posted a "just after dawn" photo of a Galah on your back fence - I could not find it again to comment on the forum, but I think you should really have that blown up and framed it - the "nearly fading" colours in it make it appear nearly like one of those Turner-like paintings.

Anyway, thanks for your blog again.

Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi MissAnthropist,

Thank you for your appreciation. Such encouragement gives a real "feel-good" feeling.

Some of my photographic subjects might well be of NatGeo standard, but I'm afraid my technical quality leaves a great deal to be desired. But it is very pleasing to know that people are enjoying my nature observations.

Many thanks :)


anthony said...

Hi, My dog was sniffing around at one of these does anyone know if it will harm him. He found it today and it looks like the picture on day 20-23. Thanks

Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi Anthony,

I apologise for my delay in responding - I have been away.

As I am not an expert, I cannot answer your question with any certainty, but as these puffballs are edible when in their firm white stage, I don't imagine they would be toxic in any stage. If the puffball had transformed into a mass of spores, I doubt that a dog would be interested in eating it as it would be a very dry mouthfull.

If you are still concerned, I would suggest that you contact the Mycology department of the Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens for more detailed information.

Best wishes