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Puffballs among the interesting spectacles on autumn strolls

The tree colors and pleasant temperatures bring many Northlanders out for walks in the woods of early October. And there's plenty here to see. Most of us marvel at the reds of red maples, dogwoods, sumac and oaks or the yellows of birches, aspens...

The tree colors and pleasant temperatures bring many Northlanders out for walks in the woods of early October. And there's plenty here to see. Most of us marvel at the reds of red maples, dogwoods, sumac and oaks or the yellows of birches, aspens, sugar maples or poplars, but much more is happening in the forest now.
Migrant thrushes and sparrows feed and call as they slowly move through the undergrowth. Chipmunks and squirrels chirp and chatter as they fill their caches for the cold days to come. Even a few late-season butterflies like the mourning cloaks, commas and sulphurs can be seen. A slow trek may also reveal a few mushrooms of note are here, too.
The mushroom time is September, but a few can still be seen on these days in October. Most abundant are the golden-brown scaly pholiotas that grow at the base of trees or perhaps extended from the trunks themselves. Nearly always in clusters, these beautiful fall fungi may grow on either dead or alive trees. Also present on the forest floor may be the purplish cortinarius mushrooms. These 3-inch showy growths often have a very wide stem below their lavender caps.
In the woods now, too, is the fungus known as puffballs. Not exactly the same as mushrooms, puffballs are another type of fungi. Like mushrooms, they grow on soil or, more likely, on dead logs. But unlike mushrooms, puffballs form their spores within their fleshy interior, not below the cap as the well-known mushrooms do. The name of puffball refers to the fact that when ripe, the spores get released into the air from ball-like growths. A slight bump, step upon or even rain drops will send this smoke-like material out.
In true fungi fashion, thousands of spores are produced for each single puffball. Starting in late summer, puffballs appear each year. Typically, they are in clusters that range in size from that of marbles to golf balls. Most are white at first, but turn brown with age. They also form small holes on the surface when the spores ripen. However, as often happens with fungi, there is much diversity. Some puffballs are barely the size of our fingernails and grow as rough-skinned white clumps on lawns.
On sandy soils, a puffball with a star shape can be found, too. The ball growth in the center is surrounded by a skin that unfolds to reveal a number of rays. Such earth stars are not so common in our region and tend to grow alone. Sometimes at the edge of fields, parks and woods, we may find a puffball that can reach the size of a watermelon. No doubt, such giant puffballs also form a huge amount of spores. If released when ripe, these fantastic fungi fill the air with millions of spores.
Despite all this diversity, we are most likely to see puffballs in the woods and on downed branches. And by this time of year, most puffballs are ripe, waiting a force to send the spores into the air. Whether we are a child or adult, it is hard not to step on these brown fungi. Flattening the fungus and sending out such smoke signals may seem to be hurting this growth, but we are actually helping the puffballs to do what they want to accomplish when mature.
As usual, walking the autumn woods gives us plenty to see, and the present puffballs are just another example of our fantastic fall in the Northland.

Larry Weber is author of the "Backyard Almanac." He lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.

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