Saturday, August 19, 2006

Puffball (Lycoperdon)

The plant of the day in the French Republican calendar is the puffball lycoperdon. I was surprised to find out that it’s a mushroom, the first one I've encountered in the French Republican calendar, but it makes sense to feature a mushroom as we slide into autumn.

It’s called a puffball because it releases its spores through a break in the top of the sphere-like body as seen in the top photograph on this web site which features other cool pictures of puffballs as well:

And what of lycoperdon?
In this web publication of The Life of the Fly by J Henri Fabre I found this charming description of this childhood discovery of mushrooms in a little spinny near his house:
Soon, I find others, differing in size, shape and color. It is a real treat for my prentice eyes. Some are fashioned like bells, like extinguishers, like cups; some are drawn out into spindles, hollowed into funnels, rounded into hemispheres. I come upon some that are broken and are weeping milky tears; I step on some that, instantly, become tinged with blue; I see some big ones that are crumbling into rot and swarming with worms. Others, shaped like pears, are dry and open at the top with a round hole, a sort of chimney whence a whiff of smoke escapes when I prod their under side with my finger. These are the most curious. I fill my pockets with them to make them smoke at my leisure, until I exhaust the contents, which are at last reduced to a kind of tinder.
And a little further on Fabre describes his research into the names of mushrooms:
The same books told me the name of the one that had amused me so much with its smoking chimney. It is called the puffball in English, but its French name is the vesse-de-loup. I disliked the expression, which to my mind smacked of bad company. Next to it was a more decent denomination: Lycoperdon; but this was only so in appearance, for Greek roots sooner or later taught me that Lycoperdon means vesse-de-loup and nothing else. The history of plants abounds in terms which it is not always desirable to translate. Bequeathed to us by earlier ages less reticent than ours, botany has often retained the brutal frankness of words that set propriety at defiance.
And what does vesse-de-loup mean? Apparently wolf-fart. See this lovely autumnal photograph of pear-shaped wolf-farts in Tannersville, New York:
Another common name for it is the devil’s snuffball according to this website:
which also says that it is in season from late summer through late autumn and edible when young (before the white flesh of the mushroom turns brown).

This website explains where to find them and how to tell them apart from poisonous mushrooms that look similar when young:

But I will leave the final word for my favorite gardener, Paghat. She took the photograph above of the young puffballs in August (in my region). She also provides many interesting facts about puffballs, including warnings about when and how to pick them:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Yes, indeed. Most things do sound better in French.