Bovista plumbea Pers. - Grey Puffball

Phylum: Basidiomycota - Class: Agaricomycetes - Order: Agaricales - Family: Agaricaceae

Bovista plumbea, Grey Puffball

One of several whitish puffball fungi found in grasslands, Bovista plumbea looks rather like a miniature Giant Puffball Calvatia gigantea although in the early stages of development its outer skin (peridium) is rougher than that of its larger cousin.

Unlike Lycoperdon puffballs, Bovista species are stemless andthey are attached to the soil by white mycelial cords that fracture at maturity, allowing the wind to blow the spore-filled fruitbodies along; in this way spores are distributed widely.

Grey Puffballs, southern Portugal

Distribution

A fairly common but localised find in Britain and Ireland, the Grey Puffball is quite often seen in sheep-grazed grassland and sand dune systems, where it usually fruits in small groups.

This puffball is widespread and abundant across mainland Europe and Asia, and it is also recorded in many parts of North America.

Taxonomic history

This small grassland fungus was first described in scientific literature by Christiaan Hendrik Persoon in 1796, when it was given the binomial name Bovista plumbea, which still remains its accepted scientific name today.

Synonyms of Bovista plumbea include Lycoperdon bovista Sowerby, Lycoperdon plumbeum Vittad., and Bovista ovalispora Cooke & Massee.

Bovista plumbea is the type species of the genus Bovista, which contains about 40 known species.

Etymology

The generic name Bovista comes from the old German vohenvist - vohe meaning a fox and vīst an emission of gas from the colon (okay, so that means fox-flatulence, to put it politely) - reference to the smell of the spore dust releases from these puffballs. Much more straightforward is the specific epithet plumbea, which literally translates to 'leaden' and refers to the greyish colour of the inner peridium of these puffballs. One of the common names that has been applied to this species is Rolling Puffball, because once it becomes detached from the soil the fruitbody rolls along in close-cropped meadows, blown by the slightest breeze.

Identification guide

Grey Puffball, Bovista plumbea

Fruitbody

Subspherical, smooth, 1.5 to 4cm across and stemless, The exoperidium (outer shell) is white at first, turning greyish and then splitting open to reveal a matt grey inner peridium.

Inner peridium of Bovista plumbea

The greay inner peridium (left) eventually bursts open leaving a roughly circular apical hole.

Internally the gleba is white at first, turning olive-brown and finally brown as the spore mass matures. Capillitium threads up to 25µm thick, reddish brown, thick-walled, dichotomously branched, without pores or septa; branches terminate in sharply tapered tips.

Grey Puffballs become detached from the ground and are often blown about by the wind. When fully mature the pores disperse via the ragged apical opening in the inner peridium.

 

Spores of Bovista plumbea, Grey Puffball

Spores

Subglobose to broadly ellipsoidal, with very finely warted surfaces; 4.5-6.5 x 4-5.5µm. Remnant of sterigma attached to spore is cylindrical, tapered at the free end, and typically 10µm long creating a tadpole-like overall appearance.

Spore mass

Brown.

Odour/taste

Not significant.

Habitat & Ecological role

In permanent pastures, old lawns, golf courses, dune slacks, golf courses and parks; occasionally also on roadside verges; often in small groups..

Season

June to October in Britain and Ireland.

Similar species

Lycoperdon perlatum is covered in warts rather than spines.

Lycoperdon pyriforme occurs on stumps and buried wood.

Lycoperdon mammiforme has a surface covered initially in woolly patches.

Culinary notes

Bovista plumbea is generally considered edible when young and white throughout, but it is not highly valued.

Toxic imposters

A note of caution for newcomers to fungal foraging: there are ball-shaped fungi known as earthballs, and some of them can look quite similar to Grey Puffballs; however, they have single skins, their spore-bearing inner material starts off very pale grey and gradually becomes brown or black as the spores mature. Earthballs are inedible and some of them can cause serious poisoning. The most common of these, sometimes found along with Grey Puffballs on woodland edges, is Scleroderma citrinum, the Common Earthball. The differences in features between puffballs and earthballs are quite obvious once you know what to look for, but it is important to learn how to distinguish these two groups if you plan on gathering edible puffballs for the pot. Amanita phalloides, starts off as a rounded button mushroom, sometimes pure white or with just the faintest hint of olive. I mention this simply to emphasise how important it is not merely to learn how to identify a range of the finest edible mushrooms but, equally importantly, to become familiar with the identifying characteristics of the poisonous fungi with which they could be confused. For more help with this important safety matter see Fascinated by Fungi; however, some introductory information on edible fungi with toxic imposters online here...

For a very easy to recognise edible puffball that cannot be mistaken for any other mushroom, see Calvatia gigantea, the Giant Puffball. Unfortunately it's not every day that you stumble across Giant Puffballs, as they are not only uncommon but also very localised in their distribution. If you find a good spot for these mighty meaty meal sources, make a note of it because Giant Puffballs usually reappear in the same places for many years.

Bovista plumbea in grassland, Portugal

Reference Sources

Fascinated by Fungi, Pat O'Reilly 2016.

Pegler, D.N., Laessoe, T. & Spooner, B.M (1995). British Puffballs, Earthstars and Stinkhorns. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Ellis, M.B. & Ellis, J.P. (1990). Fungi without Gills (Hymenomycetes and Gasteromycetes). Chapman and Hall: London, England.

British Mycological Society. English Names for Fungi

Dictionary of the Fungi; Paul M. Kirk, Paul F. Cannon, David W. Minter and J. A. Stalpers; CABI, 2008

Taxonomic history and synonym information on these pages is drawn from many sources but in particular from the British Mycological Society's GB Checklist of Fungi and (for basidiomycetes) on Kew's Checklist of the British & Irish Basidiomycota.

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