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Fall 2010

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

September 28, 2010

A mushroom’s cloud


In early fall pastures, playgrounds and unmown yards, the mature fruiting bodies of purple-spored puffballs are whispering "kick me."

In dry weather, a tap of the foot to the dried-out spongy mushroom will liberate a fog of dark purple spores.

Finer than talcum powder, the spores rise and drift with air currents that could deposit them thousands of miles away.

Each "smokeball" may produce billions of spores, each a single cell measuring about 1/200th of a millimeter in diameter (slightly smaller than a red blood cell).

Should a spore land on the soil in a warm, moist spot, it will swell and begin absorbing decaying plant matter. A successful spore will divide into long chains of cells. Food availability and climate will determine how many months or years the mass of threadlike cells must grow before reaching maturity.

During warm, moist summer spells, a mature underground network of the fungus will concentrate in spots and send up little cheeselike puffballs, which will expand, dry out and release a billion new spores by early autumn.

Sources: "The Mushroom Book," Nina L. Marshall; Wayne P. Armstrong, Palomar College; Fungi Perfecti

Purple-spored puffball; Calvatia cyathiformis