To this genus belong most of the "puff-balls," as they are commonly called, or, as they are denominated in the South, " Devil's snuff box." All, or a large portion, of the interior of the plant at maturity breaks down into a powdery substance, which with the numerous spores is very light, and when the plant is squeezed or pressed, clouds of this dust burst out at the opening through the wall. The wall of the plant is termed the peridium. In this genus the wall is quite thin, and at maturity opens differently in different species. In several species it opens irregularly, the entire wall becoming very brittle and cracking up into bits, as in the giant puff-ball. In the remaining species it opens by a distinct perforation at the apex, and the remainder of the wall is more or less pliant and membranous. All of the puff-balls are said to be edible, at least are harmless, if eaten when the flesh is white. They should not be eaten when the flesh is dark, or is changing from the white color.

Lycoperdon giganteum Batsch. Edible. - This, the giant puff-ball, is the largest species of the genus. Sometimes it reaches immense proportions, two to three or even four feet, but these large sizes are rare. It is usually 20 to 40 cm. (8-16 in.) in diameter. It grows on the ground in grassy places during late summer and in the autumn. It is a large rounded mass, resting on the ground, and near or at the center of the under side, it is attached to the cords of mycelium in the ground. It is white in color until it is ripe, that is, when the spores are mature, and it should be gathered for food before it is thus ripe. When it is maturing it becomes yellowish, then dusky or smoky in color. The flesh, which is white when young, changes to greenish yellow and finally brownish, with usually an olivaceous tinge, as the spores ripen.

The plant is so large that it may be sliced, and should be sliced before broiling. A single specimen often forms enough for a meal for a large family, and some of the larger ones would serve for several meals.

Lycoperdon cyathiforme Bosc. Edible. - This is called the beaker-shaped puff-ball because the base of the plant, after the spores have all been scattered, resembles to some extent a beaker, or a broad cup with a stout, stem-like base. These old sterile bases of the plant are often found in the fields long after the spores have disappeared. The plants are somewhat pear-shaped, rounded above, and tapering below to the stout base. They are 7-15 cm. in diameter, and white when young. At maturity the spore mass is purplish, and by this color as well as by the sterile base the plant is easily recognized. Of course these characters cannot be recognized in the young and growing plant at the time it is wanted for food, but the white color of the interior of the plant would be a sufficient guarantee that it was edible, granted of course that it was a member of the puff-ball family. Sometimes, long before the spores mature, the outer portion of the plant changes from white to pinkish, or brownish colors. At maturity the wall, or peridium, breaks into brittle fragments, which disappear and the purplish mass of the spores is exposed. The plant grows in grassy places or even in cultivated fields.

Lycoperdon gemmatum Batsch. Edible. - This puff-ball is widely distributed throughout the world and is very common. It grows in the woods, or in open places on the ground, usually. It is known from its characteristic top shape, the more or less erect scales on the upper surface intermingled with smaller ones, the larger ones falling away and leaving circular scars over the surface, which gives it a reticulate appearance. The plants are white, becoming dark gray or grayish brown when mature. They vary in size from 3-7 cm. high to 2-5 cm. broad. They are more or less top-shaped, and the stem, which is stout, is sometimes longer than the rounded portion, which is the fruiting part. The outer part of the wall (outer peridium) when quite young separates into warts or scales of varying size, large ones arranged quite regularly with smaller ones between. These warts are well shown in the two plants at the left in Fig. 210, and the third plant from the left shows the reticulations formed of numerous scars on the inner peridium where the larger scales have fallen away.

The plant at the extreme right is mature, and the inner peridium has ruptured at the apex to permit the escape of the spores. The spore mass, together with brownish threads which are intermingled, are greenish yellow with an olive tinge, then they become pale brown. The spores are rounded, 3.5-4.5 in diameter, smooth or minutely warted.

Another small puff-ball everywhere common in woods is the Lyco-perdon pyriforme, so called because of its pear shape. It grows on very rotten wood or on decaying logs in woods or groves, or in open places where there is rotting wood. It is somewhat smaller than the gem-bearing lycoperdon, is almost sessile, sometimes many crowded very close together, and especially is it characterized by prominent root-like white strands of mycelium which are attached to the base where the plant enters the rotton wood. While these small species of puff-balls are not injurious to eat, they do not seem to possess an agreeable flavor. There are quite a number of species in this country which cannot be enumerated here.

Figure 210. Lycoperdon gemmatum

Figure 210

Lycoperdon gemmatum. Entirely white except when old (natural size). Copyright.

Related to the puff-balls, and properly classed with them, are the species of Scleroderma. This name is given to the genus because of the hard peridium, the wall being much firmer and harder than in Lycoperdon. There are two species which are not uncommon, Scleroderma vulgare and S. verrucosum. They grow on the ground or on very rotten wood, and are sessile, often showing the root-like white strands attached to their base. They vary in size from 2-6 cm. and the outer wall is cracked into numerous coarse areas, or warts, giving the plant a verrucose appearance, from which one of the species gets its specific name.