The first time Pamela Miller saw a giant puffball in the wild, she mistook it for a human skull.
“I almost had a heart attack,” reports the veteran mushroom hunter/Star Tribune editor.
The smooth, white, orb-like mushrooms are hard to miss, with some growing up to three feet in diameter and weighing up to 40 pounds. They’re edible, though reasonable mycophiles differ on how pleasing the tofu-like meat tastes. And for the past few years, puffballs all but disappeared from Minnesota.
“This year, out of nowhere, there are literally thousands of them,” Miller says. “I’ve never seen that many—they’re everywhere.”
Ron Spinosa, a mushroom expert with the Minnesota Mycological Society, isn’t sure why giant puffballs have been popping up in such great numbers throughout southern and central Minnesota.
“For a long time, you could find ’em just about every year,” Spinosa says with a folksy, mushroom-authoritative drawl. “But with climate change, some mushrooms are coming up at different times, some of ’em aren’t coming up.”
Right now, you might find giant puffballs at places like Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Frontenac State Park, and Minnehaha Falls Park. You’ll absolutely find the ‘shrooms—sometimes called “moon melons”—on social media. Currently, there are 98,000 posts under the #puffball Instagram hashtag. While some posts highlight poofy chickens, most of the images feature mushroom hunters hoisting those pasty, spherical fungi trophies.
Giant puffballs belong in the quartet of wild mushrooms known as the “Foolproof Four,” Spinosa says. Alongside shaggy mane, morel, and chicken of the woods, they’re among the most common and identifiable mushrooms for novice hunters.
“If you see something that’s as big as a soccer ball, smooth and white on the outside… there’s really nothing else that’s like that,” Spinosa says. “Jeez, they can get as big as a good-sized watermelon.”
Like all tastes, the flavor (or non-flavor) of giant puffballs is subjective. Both Miller and Spinosa liken it to to tofu, though the latter mushroom chef has had better luck in the kitchen with puffballs. Spinosa rattles off favorite recipes, including deep-fried puffball parm and puffball pâté. When slicing into a puffball, make sure it’s still pure and white on the inside. If the interior is brownish, that means your moon melon is emitting its 7 trillion (!) spores and will taste skunky. The spore-phase puffball did offer medicinal qualities to the Lakota people, who would pack open wounds with the spores to reduce bleeding and encourage blood clotting, according to Spinosa and Utah State University.
“They’re remarkable,” adds Spinosa. “Even though they didn’t pop up for a few years, the organism itself, the mycelium, was intact and underground—they sent out the signal to make a mushroom. It’s always a thrill to find a big puffball.”
“They’re kind of ridiculous, they make people happy because they’re so unexpected,” she says. “They’re hilarious.”