You won’t have this mushroom to kick around anymore.
Earthstars, which are in the puffball family of mushrooms, are nature’s kickballs. Very few of us can resist the urge to take a boot to these and other bulbous puffballs. As fall progresses, the sporous spheres are nearing the end of their reproductive lifecycle, although you can still see their dried, crusty remains through the winter.
Look for a star on the ground. They prefer sandy soils and often appear near cedar trees. These globular mushrooms are encased in a “skin” that peels open. When open, the skin spreads out and splits, resembling a star with a ball inside. The star appearance is more than just for show. When the outer “star” layer peels back and becomes prostrate on the ground, it will actually push up its center fruiting body. It can elevate itself up to a few centimeters off the ground. This increase in height is an advantage that will allow spores to ‘catch wind’ and disperse more widely.
One variety of earthstars is the barometer earthstar. The barometer earthstar is an intriguing species. The rays of the star open and close depending on the weather. Wet weather unfolds the stars, encouraging the water to release its internal spores, while dry weather causes it to close around itself for protection and thus won’t release or waste its spores in weather that is not conductive to dispersal.
The barometer earthstar, Astraeus hygrometricus, is named for Astraeus, also known as “the starry one.” He was one of the Greek titans who was the father of the four winds.
Earthstars are in the puffball family. Puff is not only a magical dragon, but a group of miraculous mushrooms. Members of this mushroom group differ from other mushrooms in a few distinct ways. For one, they have their spores inside of their rounded bodies, rather than underneath as in a typical umbrella-shaped mushroom. Additionally, they lack the gills of other common mushroom varieties.
And as I mentioned, their shape makes them irresistible to the practicing punter, but also provides for spore dispersal from wind, water, or any other force that can create enough pressure to pop the puff and release a cloud of spores. Don’t get too close to observe the cloudy release, as the surplus of spores can irritate your airway.
Many of the puffballs are edible, although earthstars are not. Puffball recipes abound on the internet (with a name like “puffballs,” how could they miss ending up as hors d’oeuvre?), but of course, take precautions when eating any wild food. Be sure — no, certain — of the identification. Especially with mushroom foraging, mistakes can be deadly.
People should probably not kick the habit of kicking the puffballs. These small wonders have developed their own unique and admirable methods for getting their spores broadcast — and their kick-ability is actually a benefit to their survival. So in this case, don’t resist getting your kicks!
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.