Meet the Mushrooms, Episode Two: Giant Puffballs

While lots of fungi are very small, in some cases too small to see, today’s spotlight mushroom is hard to miss when you come across it. Often mistaken for a volleyball lost in a field, the Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea) is aptly named—it’s a large, usually round, all-white fruiting body often found in fields, meadows, yards, and woodland areas. I found my first Giant Puffballs this year in early November, which is a littler later than what most guides would suggest (September-October). They were located in a kind of border area between a wooded zone and a landscaped yard. One of them was being choked by vinca—this one was too mature to be eaten (see my tip guide below for how I knew that).

Luckily, the disappointment didn’t last long as I soon spotted two other perfect volleyballs nearby! It isn’t uncommon to find Puffballs living in communities like this. 

Tips for Safely Harvesting Giant Puffballs

  • It is safer to harvest volleyball-size Puffballs than smaller ones. Some smaller ones are fine, but there is a higher chance of misidentification in those cases.
  • They are always found on the ground.
  • The texture of the Puffball should be smooth, perhaps leather-like, and perhaps with small “craters.”
  • There should be NO STEM and NO GILLS.
  • When you cut open the mushroom, the color should be solid white all the way through. The texture should be something like tofu. If you see any colors besides white (like yellow or brown or green), don’t eat it. If the texture is mushy, don’t eat it. If it smells really funky, don’t eat it!

It isn’t exactly known whether this mushroom is mycorrhizal (in a complex relationship with plant roots) or can simply spread its spores anywhere to reproduce, but what we do know is that it isn’t easy to cultivate like some other mushrooms. I would suggest simply noting where you found a Puffball and returning there the following year to harvest again.

Eating Puffballs: A Recipe for Pizza!

There are as many ways to prepare Puffballs as there are ways to prepare meat or tofu. One idea I’ve heard about from forager friends that I decided to try this time is Puffball Pizza. It turned out great! I’ll share with you my basic recipe below.

The next time you find the spectacular lost volleyball fungi poking out from the ground, go ahead and get excited! You really can make a feast with this mushroom, and food security and deliciousness are definitely things to get excited about. For me, there’s a thrill and feeling of connectedness when I am able to forage for wild food. Luckily, puffballs can have trillions of reproductive spores, so as long as one of them is left on the ground to reach maturity, the spores will ensure future mushroom friends, fruiting bodies, and hopefully plenty of Puffball pizzas to come.

Note that if you do not have personal experience mushroom foraging, it is suggested to obtain a positive ID from your local mycologists or experts. Some wild mushrooms are poisonous and it is your responsibility to identify wild food before ingesting.

Meet the Mushrooms, Episode One: Chicken of the Woods

A beautiful rosette of Chicken. All photos in this article are from members of the Philadelphia Mycology Club, specifically Bethany Teigen, Dan Schimmel, and myself.

Ahh, autumn! The leaves crunching underfoot, the crisp and chilly morning air, the pumpkin-everything-everywhere, and—what’s that huge cluster of orange cascading down that oak tree? Mushrooms, you say?

Yes, that’s delicious “Chicken of the Woods!” Laetiporus sulphureus, to be more technical, also commonly called Sulfur Shelf. Laetiporus cincinnatus is another edible similar-looking species, but not as delicious, so I’m focusing on sulphureus. It’s relatively easy to identify (David Arora of Mushrooms Demystified lists it as one of the “foolproof four”) and, as its name would imply, can have a quite chicken-like texture and flavor when prepared properly and if the specimen is young and from a good tree. Below I cover some key identification and harvesting tips as well as some ideas for culinary use.

Note that if you do not have personal experience mushroom foraging, it is suggested to obtain a positive ID from your local mycologists or experts. Some wild mushrooms are poisonous and it is your responsibility to identify wild food before ingesting.

WHERE TO LOOK FOR IT 

  • Sulphur Shelf grows exclusively on trees. It grows on living (mature and already dying) as well as dead trees (as it is both parasitic as well as saprotrophic). This includes logs, so double check those logs and piles of wood to see if a Chicken might be lurking on the other side! 
  • You will find it anywhere on the tree, from the base up through the height of the tree. You might also find it on stumps.
  • Only harvest from hardwood trees such as oak or beech. Oak is often a safe bet. Do not harvest from any conifers or locust or eucalyptus trees (these are the ones that might make you sick).
  • Be on the lookout during August through October, possibly even later, for that beautiful pop of orange as you walk through the woods. These mushrooms tend to grow fast and in large quantities. Make a meal to share with friends!

HOW TO IDENTIFY IT

  • The color can range from orange to salmon to orange-yellow to yellow. The color fades or becomes more white with age. You can use these photos for reference as well as any mushroom book, other websites, or online mushroom groups. 
  • The underside has bright sulphur yellow pores (it’s a polypore, literally it will look like many pores, rather than gills).
  • The brackets are somewhat fan-shaped and can be smooth to wrinkled to lumpy; caps are usually overlapping or in bunches, though occasionally solitary.
  • There is no obvious stem.

OTHER COOL FACTS 

  • Unlike some more rare mushrooms, there aren’t major sustainability issues around the ethics of harvesting this mushroom.
  • For the ambitious folks, it is possible to cultivate your own C.O.W. —but this is beyond the scope of this current article.
  • As for nutrients, Sulphur Shelf is high in protein as well as an assortment of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
  • These mushrooms may also have medicinal aspects such as antimicrobial and cancer-inhibiting compounds.
  • Sulphur mushrooms can also be used to make natural dye.

HOW TO EAT IT 

  • Harvest only young and tender caps. If you do want to use the older specimens, you can try to just cut off and use the more tender outer edges.
  • If possible just clean with a damp cloth. The mushrooms are very absorbent and you don’t want them to become spongy.
  • Make sure to cook very thoroughly. This breaks down the cell walls, making the mushroom more digestible and nutrients more available. This also kills potential toxins or pathogens. And little bugs if you didn’t clean them well 🙂
  • Substitute the same amount of this mushroom in any recipe that calls for chicken.
  • Super easy way to cook: just slice it thin and fry it in oil or butter, with some salt and pepper. Use as little oil as possible, again because of their absorbency.
  • Easy: slice thin and add it to your next omelet or scrambled eggs dish.
  • Foraging meets fast food: Try making breaded “Chicken” nuggets or “Chicken” fingers with a side of homemade honey mustard.

Stay tuned for more episodes of “Meet the Mushrooms.” For those of you new to mushrooming, I really can’t say enough about the joy of relating to fungi. Mycelial networks are all around us, giant organisms largely invisible to our own eyes, yet engaging in all sorts of ecological functions that often transcend human categorization. Learning to identify and eat the fruiting bodies of some of these species is just one simple way of developing a relationship, albeit a very useful and nourishing one! While my articles will tend to focus on visible and edible species, I encourage the intrigued reader to embark on their own mycological research. It is a pursuit sure to inspire, or at the very least, boggle your mind.

An Introduction to Invasivorism

Omnivore, carnivore, herbivore, locavore, vegan, freegan, paleo, etc.—there are so many diets and lifestyles to explore and follow, each with their own body of ethical, biological, and practical reasons. One diet in particular that’s caught my attention lately is invasivorism. Essentially, invasivores focus on consuming invasive species in order to control those populations and thus eventually restore ecosystem balance. It’s an added benefit that many invasive species are actually quite nutritious for humans (but let’s not emphasize that too much, lest the foods become too desirable and intentionally farmed!).

According to the National Wildlife Federation, an invasive species is “any kind of living organism that is not native to an ecosystem and causes harm.” Invaders can change the fabric of an ecosystem by out-competing and killing off native species, decreasing diversity, spreading particular diseases, and altering the food web. These are just a few examples of the multitude of complex issues associated with invasive species.

The term “invaders” certainly sounds threatening and malicious, and I often hear people speak the word with a tone of anger, even hatred. But let’s not forget that these species were usually introduced to foreign ecosystems through human behaviors. Now they’re only doing what they can to survive, just like any other organism. Whether intentionally or not, we humans are largely responsible for the complicated disturbances rippling throughout ecosystems. Invasivorism is a small reach towards finding actions that can, hopefully, have some sort of positive effect. 

If you have any interest in foraging for wild food, I think it’s worth your while to be able to identify invasives and consider how you’ll relate to them, hopefully with the best big-picture intentions for ecosystem health. While invasives include any type of organism, for the scope of this article (and in my present-day life), I’m focusing on plants. Below, I discuss Garlic Mustard, Japanese Knotweed, and Wineberries, three types of edible invasive plants in Pennsylvania and a few ideas for how to approach, harvest, and eat.

Garlic Mustard

From a patch in Morris Woods

Alliaria petiolata comes from Europe and can be found all throughout the US. invasivore.org provides some concise information on how Garlic Mustard disturbs the ecosystem, particularly through direct competition and negatively altering soil chemistry in its growing area. Garlic Mustard spreads only through seed, which is hopeful news, because it means that if you harvest the whole plant (make sure you’ve plucked the whole thing including roots) before it goes to seed in early spring, you can slowly reduce the population of it in the chosen harvesting area.

The easiest ways to incorporate Garlic Mustard in your diet are to toss the fresh leaves into any salad, or, my personal favorite, make wild pesto with it. You can add it to an existing recipe or base the recipe around it to use up larger amounts of the plant. If you want to be meticulous about discarding unused parts of the plant, such as large stems and root material, consider drying it out and then burning it in your next campfire.

Japanese Knotweed

Knotweed doing its thing: spreading quickly

Sometimes called False Bamboo, this plant is often found in disturbed areas and especially near rivers and streams. It’s a notorious invasive that spreads rapidly through multiple ways such as seed dispersal and stems shooting from its strong rhizome system. Its roots are unimaginably hardy and can even travel underneath and shoot up from concrete! It grows densely and tends to block out any other kind of native vegetation.

In Japan, Knotweed was prized as a nutritious mountain vegetable. Young shoots were harvested, peeled, and lightly cooked, or perhaps pickled. The roots are also extremely high in the potent medicinal compound Resveratrol, among other compounds.

Herbalists recommend tincturing the roots to include in multi-use medicines good for many conditions including Lyme’s Disease. If you stumble across a young Japanese Knotweed plant, try digging up the roots and young shoots for medicine and food—just be careful to dig up all of the root and rhizome material. If you find older and taller plants, it is recommended to leave it for professional removal, as the rhizome system will be too large to dig up entirely.

Wineberry

Yummy berries found in Cobb’s Creek

And now, for the most relevant plant for the month of July: Wineberries! Rubus phoenicolasius, also originating from Asia, is an invasive shrub/vine found in disturbed and sunny areas. Be careful when searching for it, as it tends to grow in conditions also loved by Poison Ivy. New York Invasive Species Information notes that Wineberries create “impenetrable thickets in natural areas, making the habitat unusable for some species and creating hiding places for others,” but also that “there has been no study to date documenting its specific impact on native species.” Wineberries are also easier to dig up than Knotweed and seem to present less of an intense threat.

The plant spreads largely through seed, which usually must be scarified through the digestive system of an animal to germinate. This is particularly important to note: several small woodland creatures now depend on this berry for food. In these cases, perhaps leaving many of the plants isn’t the worst idea. Some naturalists have recommended that it is beneficial for humans to harvest many of these berries, while leaving some amount near the forest floor. This way, we reduce the overall amount of seed traveling through their bellies and butts, but we don’t get rid of it entirely.

Besides, wineberries are really delicious and can be used the same way you would use a raspberry. If you’re not sure how to identify wineberries, look for hairy red stems and berries that are often slightly more orange than a raspberry. Also note that wineberries stay enclosed in their sepals until shortly before ripe. Get out foraging for your local wineberries before it’s too late—your tastebuds will thank you! 


While it’s unpractical to solely consume invasive species, I am in favor of incorporating them into your diet. Particularly, if you can be sure your actions are slowly reducing the population (such as harvesting the whole Garlic Mustard plant before it has gone to seed), why not give it a try? Slow but sure human removal may sometimes be a better option than widespread chemical wipe-out, which may be too sudden and throw off an adapting ecosystem. Plus, lots of invasive species are healthy and medicinal. Better to eat them than to hate them, right?