Wild Ideas: Mysterious white spheres on the forest floor  

I’m often amazed how even a little rain can transform a dry environment. While this is dramatically demonstrated in desert areas, here in the Blue Ridge it has subtler transformative powers.

On Oct. 27, after rain brought some relief to the long, hot dry spell we’d been having, a friend and I were walking on the Thornton River Trail in Shenandoah National Park. It was a beautiful fall day, with rain and a cool front having brought more-typical fall weather behind it. And despite the drought, the leaf color was good enough to make the scenery along the trail even more gorgeous than it was this summer.

Not too far from the junction with the Hull School and Thornton Hollow trails, I stopped to take photos of some bracket mushrooms on fallen limbs and logs. Looking up, I spotted two bright-white spherical objects a short way off the trail, in a dampish area with lots of vines. At first, I thought it was plastic debris or volleyballs that someone had dumped, but that didn’t seem likely here. Then I had another thought, walking in to get a closer look.

Mushrooms Pam Owen recently found in the forest surrounding her house include this giant puffball, an 11.5-inch behemoth, and clusters of lovely 0.1-inch “yellow fairycups.” By Pam Owen

Up close, I confirmed my suspicion that this wasn’t manmade debris but rather humongous white mushrooms. One was almost perfectly spherical, shiny and white and about six inches in diameter. The other, which had grown around debris and plants next to it, was not so perfectly round, with dimples, and not so shiny. It was bigger than the first one — about eight inches.

I had seen somewhat similar mushrooms, purple-spored puffballs, at Leopold’s Preserve, in Broad Run this summer. Before that, I hadn’t realized Virginia had puffballs that grew that big — and none there were as big as the ones I was now looking at. But the puffballs at the preserve either had cream-colored splotches on them or had turned almost black, as blooms of this species do when they age. The mushrooms along the Thornton River Trail were bright white except where debris on the larger one had discolored it..

When I got home, I looked through my favorite mushroom guide, “Mushrooms of Virginia and the Central Appalachians,” but didn’t find the large puffballs I had photographed. I then searched online for “large white puffball,” and MushroomExpert.com came up. The photos and description on the site of Clavatia gigantean (giant puffball) matched what I had seen along the trail. I was surprised to learn that, according to the website, this species could grow much larger:

“Typical specimens are about the size of a soccer ball, and more or less round. However, it can be much larger (a 5-foot, 50-pound specimen is on record!), and its shape can be more ‘blob-ish’ than round, especially when it attains enormous sizes.”

The Midwest American Mycological Information  website adds that this mushroom is considered edible when immature. However, once it does mature, it’s no longer considered edible, although it’s still not poisonous. Normally with a fleshy, white interior, that turns yellowish green from the spores maturing inside. (As always, I should say here that I’m no mushroom expert, and I advise against eating any mushrooms that aren’t identified in person by an expert.)

Finding the giant puffballs and adding them to my photo catalog made what was already a great hike even better, and last Saturday (Nov. 4), I was surprised to see the same white spheres in the forest across the driveway from my house. Bushwhacking through the thick vines there, I found three giant puffballs, ranging 6-10.5 inches.

The largest had grown around a stick and had some other debris on and around it. When I cleared that away, the ‘shroom took on a familiar shape, seeming to moon me. While I don’t know how long the giant puffballs along the Thornton had been blooming, this was the first time I’d ever noticed them near the driveway, so I imagine the recent rains had triggered the bloom.

Although the fall fungus bloom has not been as good this year here because of the dry weather, I did find several more species in the woods and yard around my house. I wasn’t sure about the identity of most, but I’ve asked for help from the Facebook group Central Virginia Mushroom Hunters. In the meantime, I put together a slideshow of them — see below.

Among two of the more colorful fungi — at least, I think it’s a fungus — was a beautiful blue one covering log-shaped scat. It looked like it had been painted on. The scat looked a bit large for any of the canids (wild and domestic) on the property. But it was also a bit small and not as segmented as most bear poop I see this time of year, when bears are eating a lot of acorns and nuts. Whatever was covering the scat, it looked so lovely that I didn’t try to look underneath to confirm the species that left it there.

The other colorful mushroom I found was so tiny (about a 10th of an inch) that I might have missed it had it not been for its bright golden color. Clusters of it stood out from the grey log it was on. I believe it’s Bisporella citrina (yellow fairycup, aka yellow disco) — a common mushroom that is often overlooked because of its size.

Mushrooms in the Blue Ridge: Fall 2017 slideshow:

© 2017 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 335 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”