The gasteromycetes - puffballs, stinkhorns, earthstars and the like - are sometimes referred to as the 'stomach fungi' because they produce a spore mass 'gleba' that develops inside the fruitbody until the spores are mature.
Gasteromycetes is rather an artificial grouping but nevertheless useful from an identification point of view. A few of the larger fungi in this group - notably some of the puffballs - are considered edible, but most others are tasteless and several of the earthballs are known to be poisonous.
The gasteromycetes are sometimes referred to as the 'stomach' fungi because the fertile material develops inside spherical or pear-shaped fruitbodies. At maturity the fruit bodies split open to release their powdery spores.
Stinkhorn and earthstar fungi grow on the ground, as do most of the puffballs - although the Stump Puffball, Lycoperdon pyriforme, (shown on the left), grows on rotting wood.
Puffballs are edible when young and white throughout, before the olive or brown spores begin to develop; surpringly, even though they do not have gills and lack clearly-defined stems, they have much in common with true mushrooms (Agaricus species) and are now generally-accepted as belonging to the family Agaricaceae.
Several stinkhorn species (family Phallaceae, which includes the genera Phallusand Clathrus) occur in the UK but most are quite rare except for the Common Stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus (shown on the left), and the Dog Stinkhorn, Mutinus caninus. Both occur in woodland. By the time stinkhorns make their presence known (anyone with a nose can locate a common stinkhorn from 100 metres downwind) they are most definitely not fit for human consumption, although flies seem to enjoy them. Stinkhorns belong to the order Phallales.
There are more than 100 European species within the miscellaneous (non-phylogenic) group commonly known as the gasteromycetes.
For more information about the gasteromycetes and a deeper insight into the ecology and structure of puffballs, earthballs, stinkhorns and related species featured in our Gasteromycetes Gallery pages, please see Pat O'Reilly's latest book Fascinated by Fungi, author-signed copies of which are available online here...