The giant puffball, scientific name Calvatia gigantean, is a very large mushroom that can reach a weight of several kilograms and a diameter of over 80 cm. The giant puffball is visible from a large distance and can even be confused with a sheep.
The species is white, with a large round or sometimes irregular shape. The giant puffball grows on the ground and develops into a large fruiting body that resembles a football (soccer) ball. Unlike other puffballs, it doesn't have a visible base or stalk. The fertile part of the mushroom that produces its spores is actually found inside and is known under the scientific name of gleba.
Giant puffballs are edible when young, as long as the whole gleba inside has a white color. At maturity, the inner tissue becomes yellow or green, because the spores become fully developed at this stage. The mushroom can no longer be consumed at maturity, even if it's not actually toxic.
One of the large examples of Calvatia gigantea can produce an enormous number of spores, up to several trillions. Of course, very few of these spores actually grow into mature puffballs; otherwise they would suffocate all available space due to their very prolific expansion and huge size, that wouldn't allow any other plants or mushrooms to flourish.
The fruiting bodies of some fungi have a distinctive rounded shape similar to a pear that hosts the fertile spore-producing tissues. As a result, they were known as the "stomach" mushrooms and classified as gasteromycetes. Puffballs were included in this group, alongside other species such as earthstars, stinkhorns or earthballs. Modern scientists know that these fungi don't have a common ancestor, despite their shape. Even if the gasteromycetes group no longer has any scientific value, it is still used for convenience. Puffballs have now been included in the Agaricaceae group, while for example the earthballs are part of the Bolete group, even if this seems unlikely.
German scientist August Johann Georg Karl Batsch (1761 - 1802) was the first naturalist who described the species in 1786, naming it Lycoperdon giganteum. The giant puffball was renamed Calvatia gigantean by Curtis Gates Lloyd (1859-1926) in 1904. He was an American mycologist and pharmacist who extensively studied gasteromycetes thanks to his large fortune.
The false puffballs are a group of small mushrooms with thick skin that have minor toxicity. Scleroderma is a typical example of false puffball. These can be easily identified due to their very thick skin and the purple or dark gleba, which is present even in young specimens.
The release of spores can be triggered by a single drop of rain, if they have matured and are ready. By this time, the puffballs are no longer edible. Spores look like a white powder and their release can be spectacular, which is why kids love to kick them.
Storing these mushrooms is not an easy task, due to their very large size that quickly fills up a normal refrigerator. Keeping them at room temperature is a bad idea because the interior flesh will become yellow or green after only a day or two. This is a sign that spores are maturing and the mushroom can't be consumed any more.
Cloth bags, paper bags or other containers that allow gas to pass through are the best choices for storing any kind of mushroom. Zip and lock bags and airtight containers should be avoided in general, especially for puffballs.
Giant puffballs can be combined with other products to produce pills used in the treatment of various conditions. When mixed with snake slough, it can offer relief from sore throats. Pills that include a combination of Calvatia gigantea powder and honey can cure chronic cough when taken with a soup.
Hematemesis caused by long periods of lung heat can be treated with pills prepared from mushroom powder and granulated sugar that can be ingested with regular water. Hematemesis can also happen during pregnancy and an effective counter is rice soup with added giant puffball powder. Pain and inflammation can also be cured with giant puffballs.
Decoctions prepared from giant puffballs can inhibit the growth of some pathogenic fungi, as well as the dangerous bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus aureus, proteusbacillus vulgaris and Streptococcus pneumonia.
When sliced into thin strips, giant puffball has been traditionally used to limit bleeding from wounds, as a so-called styptic dressing that acts as a natural bandage. It was also effective as tinder. While tinder is not needed anymore, it used to be very valuable to carry and propagate fire back in the day when other means were not available. Beekeepers also used it to fumigate their hives during routine maintenance tasks. Smoldering giant puffballs produce a lot of smoke that calms down bees, so the beekeeper could perform his work with a much smaller risk of stings.
The giant puffball is a very popular edible mushroom due to its large size and the distinctive shape, which makes it very easy to identify. However, puffballs are quite rare and they usually grow in specific areas, so harvesting them is not a very easy task in most parts of the world. If you are lucky to find them in a location, make sure you remember it. They will develop several years in a row in the same spot, being a great source of healthy natural food.
Giant puffballs can only be consumed when fresh, so make sure that the inner tissue is white. When the spores mature, the mushrooms become inedible, even if they are not actually toxic. This is clearly signalled by the color of their flesh, which turns yellow or even brown. Avoid the puffballs that grow on the side of busy roads. These will become contaminated by the toxins produced by vehicle exhausts that accumulate in them.
Giant puffballs lack the strong flavours of other fungi but are quite versatile and can be included in a multitude of recipes. They are typically sliced into strips after peeling, and then added to meat casseroles and other similar dishes.
A very popular dish prepared from giant puffballs is fried strips with bacon, after being dipped with beaten eggs and coated in breadcrumbs. It works great with pastas or paired with a side dish salad. The texture of giant puffballs resembles the one of tofu, a product made from soy. They can be added as an ingredient to soups and any recipes prepared from other mushroom varieties.
Fresh young puffballs don't have the intense taste of other species but have a very rich earthy and nutty flavour. The simplest and most delicious recipes are mushroom omelettes and butter-fried puffballs. Giant puffballs must be consumed only if they don't have gills.
Giant puffballs usually grow isolated or in small clusters. Occasionally, they can create spectacular fairy rings. Giant puffball is typically found in border areas such as the edges of woodlands, on the side of roads, on field edges, in the middle of nettles or briars as well as in various grounds rich in nutrients. It is rarely encountered in clearings or normal forested areas.
Giant puffballs are a saprotrophic species that feeds on decaying organic waste such as grass remnants or detritus. Giant puffball enjoys fields, lawns, meadows and other areas covered by grass but it can be found in deciduous forests as well. It sometimes forms fairy rings, which are circular-shaped arrangements. These can cover a large area and supply a sizeable quantity of mushrooms, due to their great weight.
Any food can potentially trigger allergic reactions but none have been reported so far in the case of giant puffballs. However, some people can be allergic to all mushrooms, even the common white button variety that is found in stores.
Wild mushrooms require additional precautions, so test them first with a small amount. Only consume puffballs after cooking them very well and don't mix them with other species that you haven't eaten before.
Fresh giant puffballs are the only that can be consumed, so make sure their flesh is firm. Harvesting is easy, you just have to pick them from the ground and remove the dirt from the bottom part. Fresh giant puffballs have firm flesh with a flawless white color. When the flesh is no longer firm, it is a sign that the spores inside have matured. You can double check by looking at the color of the flesh, which should be yellow or green. It is pointless to harvest these mushrooms since they are no longer edible and should be left outside to release the spores and propagate.
The dirt on the bottom side can be quickly removed using a soft brush, so it's a good idea to carry one with you. Puffballs tend to appear in the same location for multiple years in a row, so note down the spot where you found them. Due to their large size, puffballs can be a great source of ingredients.