Like most kids, whenever my siblings and I found things growing up that we didn’t have names for we made up names that made sense to us. We had a lot of mushrooms in the woods behind our house that we called “smokers” or “smoking mushrooms.” If you’re familiar with them or you watch the video below you’ll see those are great names. I had a particular weakness for the smoking mushrooms. Poking one with a stick or your finger releases the most satisfying little cloud of fungus spores. You barely have to touch the outer shell to be rewarded with a puff. It’s one of those things just begs to be done one more time. Finding a fresh batch of smokers was a special treat and I would savor them for as long as possible, even avoiding them to avoid temptation. But I used to worry my siblings would find them in the meantime and I’d miss out completely. I never lasted more than a few days. Once I started poking them in earnest it was a wrap. I’d sit there for a half hour until all their little smoky puffs were used up and the mushrooms were just wasted little shells.
Years later I spotted some of these while working with my crew in the Carleton College Arboretum in Minnesota. “Smokers!” I said with enthusiasm. Everyone turned to look at me strangely. That was the first time it occurred to me “smokers” probably wasn’t the real name for them. I showed the crew how you could make them puff but they were unimpressed. One or two informed me they were well aware of the puffing mushrooms and the rest were just bored. Certainly no one shared my enthusiasm. I waited until all their backs were turned to get in some good satisfying pokes, watching with delight as the spores drifted away in the breeze.
You can imagine how pleased I was to find some smoking mushrooms in my current backyard. This time I decided to look them up officially, and it wasn’t until I naively googled “smokers” and “smoking mushrooms” that I realized the joke had been on me for a long time. How could I have not noticed our innocent childhood names had multiple meanings? And yes, the description of poking mushrooms definitely calls to mind other activities. Sometimes the permanence of a childhood way of thinking takes a long time to wear off. I eventually figured out the most common generic name for these mushrooms is puffball, but puffball applies to huge numbers of unrelated mushrooms that can’t be lumped into one evolutionary group. This is like when some people call whales and dolphins fish. They share some basic similarities but are totally different in that dolphins and whales are mammals.
So having the name puffball didn’t really get me closer to an identification. Despite this and knowing nothing of the complex world of mushroom taxonomy I found a great site of mushroom species descriptions and am going to make a confident guess that these are of the species Morganella pyriformis, commonly known as the pear-shaped puffball. I’m going mostly off the fact that Morganella pyriformis grows on decaying wood, an unusual trait for a puffball mushroom, and these are growing on wood chips. Morganella pyriformis also appears in the late summer, matures through the fall, and persists into the winter, which fits these specimens. As evidenced in the video they were still puffing away on a frosty January morning.
When they appear in the summer, they are pear-shaped, white, fleshy, and edible. Please note, it should go without saying that you never eat mushrooms unless you are a mushroom identification expert (if you have never met a true mushroom expert keep an eye out for them, in my experience they are a special kind of person) and positive of the ID, which means being just as aware of everything it could be but is not. Case in point, there is a poisonous Morganella pyriformis look alike. As they mature and begin to develop spores they turn a yellowish brown color that frankly is unattractive, and they develop a small hole on the top. Small disturbances to the fungi, including wind, falling tree debris, raindrops, and children’s sticks slowly disturb and release the spores through the fall and even during the winter. It’s pretty awesome.
Morganella pyriformis and the rest of the mushrooms that use the puffing spores method of reproduction are very common throughout most of North America. Its little smokestack of spores is a neat natural phenomena that anyone almost anywhere could find in their backyard given the right conditions. I found these growing on a thin layer of wood chips. How many homes in the country have at least one small mulch bed around their house? When I was in landscaping a major thing people wanted us to do was fluff up all the mulch in their landscape beds so that everything looked “fresh,” a look that only lasts a few weeks. Mixing up the mulch also breaks up any fungal growth which I’m sure they saw as a secondary benefit. I guess I get it, I can appreciate the formal, prim garden aesthetic. But while working on these landscape jobs I often thought of the kids that lived in the houses, because while working in their yards I could never shake the weird sensation that I was on some alien surface, like I was the first human visitor to Mars. Everything around me was so sterile and dead. A few lonely bushes and some widely spaced flowers are something to be viewed from far away, not explored, and definitely not lived in, by us or anything else. There was some truth to my sensation, most times I probably was the first person in months to set foot on that graying, slightly crusted mulch. One of the reasons I quit landscaping was because I started to feel so lonely all the time.
Supposedly there is some strange comfort in coming home from work each day and seeing everything just the way you left it, which is just the way you leave it every day. Perhaps that experience might feed the notion that you’re in control of things. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, to come home some day and instead of wondering if your child is home from school yet, see her crouched under the front bushes, stick in hand. You’d get out the car, close the door, and ask a wonderful question, “have you found something?” Maybe you’d give it a few seconds, think about how it was the early autumn and add brightly, “smokers?”
Kuo, M. (2008 November). Morganella pyriformis. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/morganella_pyriformis.html