Field of Science

When the Wolf Breaks Wind

Common puffballs Lycoperdon perlatum, copyright H. Krisp.

In an earlier post, I described the way in which the 'gasteromycetes' of historical fungal classifications have come to be expunged as a category. The enclosure of spore-producing structures within a contained fruiting body such as a puffball, instead of exposed on a membrane such as on the underside of a mushroom cap, is something that has evolved many times in fungal history. One possible suggestion for why this may occur is as a protection against moisture loss, allowing the fungus to thrive in drier or more exposed habitats than before.

In that earlier post, I also mentioned off-hand that one of the best known groups of 'gasteromycetes', the puffballs of the Lycoperdaceae, are in fact close relatives of some of the best known typical mushrooms in the Agaricaceae. Indeed, it appears that recent authors may go so far as to synonymise the two families. Puffballs emerge as globular fruiting bodies that become packed with spores as they mature, until one or more openings develop in the external skin of the fruiting body and allow the pores to escape. Supposedly many puffballs are quite edible if collected before the spores begin to develop, though I've never tried myself. Particularly sought in this regard is the giant puffball Calvatia gigantea whose fruiting bodies grow particularly large; supposedly, examples have been found over a metre in diameter and weighing up to twenty kilogrammes.

Giant puffball Calvatia gigantea, copyright Alan Wolf.

Dispersal of spores from puffballs may be achieved in a number of ways. In species found in habitats with more regular rainfall, such as species of the genus Lycoperdon, spores are spread by 'boleohydrochory' (Gube & Dörfelt 2011). '-Chory' means dispersal, '-hydro-' obviously means water, 'boleo-' I think may mean something like 'throw'. The puffball opens through a hole in the top, and drops of rain (or other sources of pressure such as being tapped by an animal) cause a puff of spores to be squeezed out. The water may then carry the spores away. The name Lycoperdon, as it happens, literally translates as 'wolf fart', and this is another one of those names I am completely at a loss to explain. The 'fart', obviously, refers to the appearance of the spore puffs, but what on earth do they have to do with wolves?

Tumbling puffballs Bovista pila, copyright Dan Molter.

Other puffballs may spread their spores via 'anemochory', dispersal by wind. This is particularly the case with species found in drier habitats. Some species, such as some members of the genus Bovista, exhibit a variation on this called 'geanemochory' in which the entire puffball becomes detached and blown about by the wind, with the spores escaping through openings in the external shell like pepper being shaken from a pepper-pot. Differences in dispersal method between puffball species are generally reflected by differences in their spore morphology. Hydrochorous species usually have strong ornamentation, with the outside of the spore being covered with warts or the like. These warts provide more surface area for the water to catch onto; they may also help prevent the spores from clumping together. In contrast, anemochorous species have spores that are smooth, making them more streamlined for being blown through the air or, particularly in the case of geanemochorous species, making them less likely to become trapped by hyphae or other structures inside the fruiting body itself and so facilitating their escape.


Gube, M., & H. Dörfelt. 2011. Gasteromycetation in Agaricaceae s. l. (Basidiomycota): morphological and ecological implementations. Feddes Repertorium 122 (5–6): 367–390.


  1. I can attest to the delicious desirability of the unripe Giant puffball. A friend found one (over 20 years ago) and I simply sliced it and fried it in olive oil, seasoning with a sprinkle of salt. It served over a dozen people. The nearest thing I can compare it to is eggy bread (without the offensive egg smell) which, according to Wikipedia is also called French toast, Bombay toast, German toast, gypsy toast, poor knights (of Windsor), and Torrija. It had a texture somewhere between oyster mushroom and marshmallow.

    The name Lycoperdon is a modern invention not used by Greeks or Romans. Lycoperdon was translated from the English name wolf's fist, used since at least Anglo-Saxon. Not to be confused with a clenched hand, "fist" means a fart or foul smell. The puffball may also just be called fist, here is the relevant part of the Oxford English Dictionary definition of fist.
    2. The fungus usually known as puff-ball ( Lycoperdon bovista). Also called bullfist n., puckfist n. (see those words) and wolves' fist. Obs.
    1597 J. Gerard Herball iii. 1386 Puffes Fistes, are commonly called in Latine Lupi crepitus, or Woolfes Fistes.
    1611 R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues Vesse de loup, the dustie or smoakie Toad~stole called..Bull fyste, Puffyst, wolues fyste.
    ... ...

    fist-ball n. = fuzz-ball n., puffball n.
    1635 R. Herrick Oberon's Feast in Poems (1869) 471 A little fust-ball [1648 Hesper. 137 Fuz-ball] pudding standes By.
    1640 J. Parkinson Theatrum Botanicum xiv. lxiv. 1324 The Fusse balls or rather Foist or Fist balls.

    The specific name "bovista" presumably refers to the bull. Wolf's fist and puckfist are the earlier forms. Puckfist was also a derogatory name for a braggart or miser. Puck would be the fairy or even the Devil himself.

    Albanian and German names for puffballs include "bear farts".

    The ἀσχίον (aschion - possibly meaning undivided?) mentioned by Theophrastus (Greek, died 287 BC) in his Historia Plantae has been translated as the Giant puffball. However, the passing mention is in a discussion of things that are underground that are not roots. Aschion is probably a synonym for the truffle mentioned just before it. In the same work πέζις κεραύνιον (pezis - something to do with feet or walking?, keraunion - thunder) has been translated as the bullfist that was called Lycoperdon bovista (now Bovista plumbea?). There is no description other than it not having roots and other translations have truffle.

  2. 4096 character limit? How dare they?

    According to "An etymological dictionary of the Scottish language" by John Jamieson (1808, Edinburgh University Press) the common puffball was called the Deil's (Devil's) snuffbox, Blind Man's Ball or Blind Man's Een (eyes) by the Scots.
    Jamieson suggests that it had the name Blind Man's Eyes as the spores were believed across the whole of Sweden to cause blindness, as reported by Linnaeus. While this may be true the fact that the fruiting bodies are white, spherical and featureless seems a more likely reason.

    I would imagine the spores could cause a severe allergic reaction when in contact with the eyes but most medical reports are about cases of inhalation, which can cause life-threatening reactions.

    Until the 20th century lycoperdon spores were used as surgical dressing and were regarded as the best material to stop bleeding and prevent infection, including for shaving cuts. In the 19th century few farmhouses in East Anglia were without a dried Giant puffball for cuts. As the spores were also used by the Inuit and in Ireland, Italy and Kosovo for stopping bleeding I assume it was effective.

    Burning puffball was used to pacify bees and was investigated for use as an anaesthetic. While an effective anaesthetic in animals when too much was given "life was invariably destroyed". One researcher concluded that the active compound was carbon dioxide. The exact species being used is difficult to say as they called it the common puffball, Lycoperdon proteus. As you would expect from anything protean it was a name given to what are now regarded as four different species.

  3. Damn, I forgot to add that the wolf was seen as the Devil by Anglo-Saxon Christians. So the puckfist means much the same as wolf's fist.

    "The wolf is the Devil, who lies in ambush about God's church, ..." From an early 11th century Anglo-Saxon translation of a Latin sermon. Possibly originally by a priest called Wulfstan, ironically.

  4. Wow, thanks for all that, Pattock. Tldr, if I understand correctly, is that the 'wolf' part of the name is probably related to the fairy connection that is pretty standard in mushroom stuff.

  5. I posted a reply here that seemed to be published successfully, but now I can't see it. I apologize if the following is repetitious ...

    Boleo indeed means "I throw" in ancient Greek.

    The same Indo-European root underlies English kill, with a sense development along the lines of "throw" > "throw at" > "hit" > "kill".

  6. More the devilish end of the Puck spectrum, so "devil's farts".


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS