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Northland Nature: Giant puffballs captivate among fall fungi

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

Large white, round mushroom growing in green grass
A giant puffball in a yard. Note the size. Its color, white, means it's immature.
Contributed / Larry Weber
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With the leaf drop that occurred mostly on schedule between Oct. 13 and 20, the landscape took on a different appearance. The green-leaf trees that had been with us since mid-May spent the previous couple weeks in their autumn attire.

During the early days of October, this arboreal show was hard to ignore. Red-leafed plants were far-outnumbered by those with yellow leaves, but nature watchers searched for their presence before they waned. (I find the red-leaf plants that last the longest are some of the smaller ones, such as raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, rose and bush honeysuckle.)

But the abscission layers of the yellow leaves also formed and they fell in huge numbers near the middle of October. Here, they joined the others on the forest floor. Before they decay here, they provide a colorful substrate for us when taking woods walks.

Not all the colors have gone from the trees, and with some searching, we may see willows (especially, weeping willows) and silver maples still holding yellows. These will often last into November. And out in the swamps, the patient tamaracks have waited until the broad-leaf trees have mostly dropped foliage before they light up with yellow-gold glows of conifer needles. Such a show can cause us to forget all the leaf looking that we did earlier in autumn.

After the leaf drop and before the lasting snow cover, we have a period of time that I like to refer to as “AutWin,” the interlude between autumn and winter. Some call it “Finter.”

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This is a remarkable time that allows us to see much of the forest landscape that was kept from us during the summer. It may last for only a couple weeks some years or it may persist all the way into December during other years. We now see the lower green plants of the forests, mostly mosses and clubmosses, but also some ferns and leafy flowering plants that were not seen during green-leaf days of warm months. Also, we can find late-season fungi.

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During a recent AutWin walk, I noted in the woods some shelf fungi growing out from trunks of trees and a thick growth of Pholiota at the base. Out at the edge of the woods were Agaricus and Amanita with a circle of brown Marasmius. Rising above these was another mushroom, a type of Coprinus (shaggy mane). Such fall fungi are typical, but what I saw next out on a lawn, made me stop and take a closer look.

Northland Nature_giant puffball 2
A brown, mature, giant puffball growing near a white one.
Contributed / Larry Weber

Out here, appearing a lot like a large white rock, was a giant puffball. Living up to its name, this growth was circular, about 12 inches in diameter and nearly 5 inches tall, maybe as big as a watermelon. We see plenty of puffballs in our woods and I expect more as we go through the days of fall, but not usually this big.

Giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea) are a regular, though never abundant, part of the fall happenings. I see them nearly every year, but still marvel at them. Like smaller puffballs, they begin as a light-colored growth that dries to pale brown in maturity. And like the other puffballs, numerous tiny spores are formed within, getting released only when disturbed from above.

Near this young white giant was a mature brown one. Some researchers claim that they can hold trillions of spores. Rather than disturbing them to find out, I was content with just seeing the giant puffballs — another sight of AutWin.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber
MORE BY LARRY WEBER
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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