Catchy title, eh? Contrary to popular belief, ‘puffballs’ aren’t some sort of cheesy corn-based snack, or a lightweight expletive that you can use in front of Granny. No, we’re talking about fungi here. And anyone that’s walked the footpaths at Forvie during late autumn has probably seen a puffball, even if they didn’t realise it at the time.
Puffballs, like other more familiar mushrooms, are the fruiting bodies of a fungus. These are the means by which the fungus releases spores (broadly speaking, the fungal equivalent of seeds) in order to reproduce. In most cases, the fruiting bodies are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, the actual fungus being very much bigger, and hidden from view in the soil or dead wood. Consequently, we only ever see a fraction of what’s happening in the world of fungi.
Fungi have various strategies to release and spread their spores. In the case of these puffballs, their strategy is to produce a rounded fruiting body with a small hole in the top through which the spores are propelled when pressure is applied. This pressure may come from falling raindrops, trampling by wildlife and people, or simply the breeze blowing over the ground. Once released, the spores are dispersed by the wind.
The spores are tiny and dark brown in colour, and resemble a puff of smoke when they are released. This fairly obviously gives puffballs their common name. Their scientific name is rather more bizarre – the Latin name Lycoperdon translates literally as ‘wolf flatulence’. I can’t even begin to suggest an explanation for this; I imagine you would require a better working knowledge of wolves than I have.
There are several species of Lycoperdon puffballs in Scotland, and not being expert mycologists here we struggle to identify them. But we think the ones currently visible on the Reserve, along the edges of the footpaths in the dune heath and grassland, are Lycoperdon lividum. Their altogether more prosaic common name is the Grassland Puffball. But for any readers out there with a better knowledge of fungi, please do get in touch and correct us if necessary!
While it’s generally not advisable to touch fungi – some species are poisonous, and it’s always best to err on the side of caution – it’s hard to resist the temptation to have a quick prod at a ripe puffball. And it’s nice to think that the resulting little puff of spores might help to produce more puffballs in future. Who knows, maybe these have evolved to take advantage of our (my) curious and easily-amused nature?
Anyway, do keep an eye out for these next time you’re out and about walking the trails. They’re another little piece of the massive jigsaw of life here at Forvie. And by the way, if you can explain the wolf thing, please do give us a shout…