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A garden for brains

May 10, 2011

This early rainy season is perfect for mushrooms. I have already seen the delicious Thai truffle (Astraeus hygrometricus) for sale in the Hang Dong market. This ‘Thai truffle’ is an earthstar, a kind of a puffball (a basidiomycete unable to discharge their spores). There are many other puffballs around right now, and since many are edible when young (before they start smoking), it could be fun to know their names.

The common puffballs go under the name Lycoperdon, which means ‘wolf fart’ in Greek (Lycos perdomai). An old Swedish name is ‘hag’s fart’. Puffballs of this genus have a thick foot (sterile stipe) and they open elegantly with a pore at the top. The purpose of the pore is to let out the spores (the smoke).

Another group are the stalkless Bovista or egg mushrooms. They look like balls on the ground, no stipe, and they make a pore.

The earthballs (Scleroderma) look like eggs too, but they open with a crack. They are usually poisonous and have a dark black interior when cut.

A fifth group, giant puffballs (Calvatia), usually have a thick stalk like Lycoperdon, but they lack the elegant pore. Instead they break up, often leaving a flattish urn-like remnant covered with the brown spores. Some species are huge, 60 cm in diameter, and resemble sleeping sheep from a distance. I have never seen such large species here in Thailand, but an elegant Thai representative is Calvatia craniformis. ‘Craniformis means ‘skull-like’, but I think they resemble brains. They are common in the Chiang Mai lawns, and should not be considered a nuisance, but interesting and edible additions to your garden landscape, a seasonal treat. A Thai name is ‘jao maprao’ which is complicated to translate, but essentially it means ‘old coconut’. These mushrooms feed on dead organic matter underground. To decide whether they are edible or not, cut a fruitbody, if white inside, go ahead.

WARNING! Only eat mushrooms which are well known to you. Amateurs can mix up anything. At one occasion I collected Thai truffles in the forest with a Thai lady, quite experienced. By mistake she had included a young white Amanita primordium among the Thai truffles. Some Amanita mushrooms are deadly! To avoid such a mistake, cut through the mushroom. An Amanita has gills, a puffball has a homogenous interior.

Calvatia craniformis, the garden brain, is now decorating the lawns at Dokmai Garden in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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