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Puffball Mushrooms in Southeast Alaska

Pear shaped puffballs in the forest.

Pear shaped puffballs on an old logging road.

Once in awhile a really good puffball year comes along in Southeast Alaska. Puffballs may carpet the forest floor or bubble out of old logging roads.

Southeast Alaskan puffballs are small things, rarely getting bigger than a golf ball. Most are the size of grapes. It usually takes a whole bunch of them to make a side dish.

While the big puffball mushrooms that grow down south are noted as edible in mushroom books, our Alaskan varieties are often noted as "presumably edible" and other vague comments. "Common Mushrooms of Alaska" by Judy Hall Jacobson notes that they are "Edible as are all puffballs as long as you make sure it is not an Amanita button." She also notes that puffballs for the table need to be firm and solid white inside. If they have even started to turn yellow inside, or if they are spongy, then they are not good to eat.

As with all wild mushrooms, puffballs should be thoroughly cooked.

That said, please do your own research on the edibility of puffball mushrooms in Alaska. Here it comes...disclaimer! I am not a mushroom expert! There are great books out there, so please refer to them and determine which mushrooms are edible for yourself. Book list at the end of this post.

Now getting back to the Amanita buttons for a minute...  When Amanitas first pop out of the ground they can be round and firm and mistaken for a puffball. The way to tell is to cut every puffball or button in half from top to bottom. Sure, it is tedious with our little puffball guys around here, but it sure beats dying, or getting really sick and wondering if you should. If you see the outline of a mushroom inside then it is not a puffball and is likely to be poisonous. Amanita buttons are usually larger than our little Alaskan puffballs, but really, is it worth being careless about?

Amanita button sliced in half. Poisonous! Note that you can see the mushroom forming inside. Only the top portion of this mushroom was showing above the moss before I picked it.

That rough coating on the top of the Amanita button above looks like a dead giveaway (harhar, I just had to do it. Boo the pun all you want), but in dim forest light it might just be mistaken for a gem studded puffball.

Gem studded puffball mushrooms. If you pick them the dusty "gems" will often come off on your fingers.

I have found both gem studded and pear shaped puffballs singly and in groups. Sometimes they are tucked close to the ground like in the logging road photo above, and sometimes they are standing up on stalks up to two inches tall.

When puffballs mature they form a hole at the top. Raindrops or footsteps make the spores puff out of the hole like smoke.






Puffballs in Alaska are not noted for spectacular flavor. I find that gently sauteing them for ten or fifteen minutes brings out some good flavor (more than just the butter), but would easily be overpowered by a zesty sauce. I defer to greater cooks for real recipes.

This is not the first mushroom to go into my basket if boletes, chanterelles, or hedgehogs are available, but then it is pretty difficult to refuse the forest's generous offering at times.  Plus, puffballs are a nice addition to meals in season. I have tried freezing them, but they became rubbery and tough. I have not tried drying them yet.

If the puffballs are young and prime then I can snap the the caps off with my fingertips. If a puffball is mushy or bends over when I try to pick it then I give it a pass.

Pear shaped puffballs. Each one will be sliced from top to bottom to be sure that it is marshmallow white inside and does not have the outline of a mushroom in it.

Long slow sauteing in butter brings out the mild flavor.

Wishing you natural bounty,

Alaska Beachcomber

Some helpful mushroom books:

  • "Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest" by Steve Trudell and Joe Ammirati
  • "Mushrooms Demystified" by David Arora
  • "All That the Rain Promises, and More..."  by David Arora
  • "Common Mushrooms of Alaska" by Judy Hall Jacobson

More mushroomy posts:

Golden Chanterelles, Winter Chanterelles, Hedgehogs, Mushroom Walk in Wrangell

Hedgehogs. Edible Mushrooms in Southeast Alaska

This is the last in the mushroom series for this year, and I am finishing with the easy-to-identify hedgehog mushroom.

My friend, Dave, once told me that he had harvested twenty pounds of hedgehog mushrooms in one season. Having never found a hedgehog of any size at that point, I was amazed thinking of the square miles of forest that he must have searched. He just isn't the kind of person that exaggerates! This year, though, I found some large, meaty hedgehogs that filled the mushroom basket more quickly than the tiny belly-button hedgehogs.

The larger hedgehog, Hydnum repandum, may be an inch or two across and and weigh an ounce at best, but it can also pop out of the earth and quickly grow to six or seven inches across. Those big bruisers are meaty, and add a bit of heft to the mushroom basket.

Hedgehog mushroom (Hydnum repandum). This specimen was just over 6" across the cap. 

Teeth on the underside of a hedgehog cap. 

To date I have only found one location where there were six hedgehogs like this, and several smaller ones. Still looking! I might find one here one day, and one there another day. Celebrate if you find just one!

Dave obviously knows where there are lots of them, but he is in another town, so I can't sneak out and tail him to his mushroom patch. Hey, all's fair in love and mushroom hunting.

Repandum's cap color may be light cream, buff, tan, or orangish-tan. It is a firm, meaty mushroom. Under the cap, instead of gills it has teeth. Not Little-Shop-of-Horrors-type teeth, but soft, delicate spines that are white to ivory, turning a little darker with age.

So many spines hanging under the mushroom. It's almost furry looking.

Underside of Hydnum repandum

Keeping those spines clean while collecting mushrooms can be challenging. My hands are usually wet from the drizzle-laden bushes, with berry leaves and hemlock needles stuck to them. Upon finding a hedgehog I first find a patch of thick, green, clean moss to wipe my hands on. Then I brush the needles and any other debris off of the hedgehog's cap. I reach in under it, grasp the stalk between two fingers, pull the hedgehog without turning it over, trim the stalk, and then turn it over and check for any dirt under the cap before placing it carefully into the basket.

It's easy when they look like this. 

Hedgehogs can have a very short stalk, though, and sometimes like to grow in holes.  

Hedgehog mushroom growing in a hole under a tree root. 

Hedgehog mushroom growing in a hole under a tree root. 

Can I get my hand in there and get the mushrooms out without too much damage or dirt? Do I WANT to stick my hand in there??  It looks pretty light with the camera flash, but in real life it is dark and creepy.

You smart mushrooms - you can just stay right there.

Belly-button hedgehogs (Hydnum umbilicatum) seem to like old growth forest or second growth that is over fifty years old. At least that is where I have found them in central Southeast Alaska. This little guy is around an inch across the cap, sometimes more, often less. There is usually a dimple in the cap, right above the stalk, which may be centered or off-center. The belly-button hedgehog makes up for it's lack of bulk with good flavor.

Belly-button hedgehogs (Hydnum umbilicatum

The spines on the belly-button hedgehog don't continue down the stalk like on Hydnum repandum.  Belly-buttons stand up on a fairly straight stalk, though, so are easier to pick. I brush off the cap, then nip them off with a thumbnail that has turned brown from picking and cleaning chanterelles and from processing devil's club root.

It is tough to get a basket full of these. Not only are they small, but I rarely find them in patches. There's one over by that spruce tree, two under the blueberry bushes, and another few a five minute walk away. After a day of walking through the forest, though, there are just enough to saute and have as a treat with dinner.

Below is a photo of hedgehogs that are as small as belly-button hedgehogs, but don't have the dimple. The spines are decurrent (running partway down the stalk), suggesting that this is a small version of Hydnum repandum, the other hedgehog. 

Which brings me to say the same thing that I say on every mushroom post. Don't take my word for it. Don't follow this amateur mushroom hunter out into the woods and believe that I know what I am doing. Some experts have been generous enough to write it all down for us, and the price of a book is so worth it. Here's a few good ones: 

"Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest" by Steve Trudell and Joe Ammirati

"Mushrooms Demystified" by David Arora

"All That the Rain Promises, and More..."  by David Arora

So I might see you out in the woods, and I'll believe you when you say that you found those hedgehogs and chanterelles miles from here if you'll believe that I did, too. 

Happy Hunting, 

Alaska Beachcomber

Other Edible Mushroom Posts: Golden Chanterelles, Winter Chanterelles

More on subsistence food and medicine:


Winter Chanterelle. Edible Mushrooms in Southeast Alaska

Today my sweetheart and I drove to five different places on Wrangell Island and walked in the forest looking for edible mushrooms. We found a few hedgehogs and three golden chanterelles that were looking pretty old and waterlogged from the rainy weather. Mostly we found winter chanterelles.

When other edible fungi are fading, the winter chanterelles still fill the mushroom basket.  

Winter chanterelle (Craterellus tubaeformus

Winter chanterelles are also called yellow foot or funnel chanterelles. Real mycologists call them Craterellus tubaeformis. Older books might have them listed as Cantharellus tubaeformis.  The names change as research marches forward.

This dainty mushroom makes up for its small size by being widespread and available from late summer into early winter. It likes the coniferous forests of Southeast Alaska, and I find it in old growth and second growth.

Yellow foot or Winter Chanterelle

Yellow foot or Winter Chanterelle

Winter chanterelles can be a boring light brown all over, or may be orangish-brown, or have a yellow stalk and brown to dark brown cap. The cap is rolled under at first, then flattens out, and then becomes trumpet shaped as the mushroom matures.

The underside of the cap is usually light tan to ivory. Look for the distinctive chanterelle ridges under the cap. They branch like veins.

The stipe may be tan or yellow, and is hollow. As you can see in the photos, it can appear round or flattened, straight or dancing out of the earth. No, this is not a professional description, and I hope that you do not solely use the information here for mushroom identification. There are good books available, and I will list several at the end of this post.

When the ridges are wrinkled and the edges of the cap are flimsy and breaking, or mushy, then the mushroom is too old to harvest for food. If it looks so yucky that you wouldn't buy it in the grocery store then just leave it in the forest.

Winter chanterelles are not quite as tasty as the golden chanterelle, but they are pretty good. It takes a bunch of them to make a side dish for several people. This small fungi shrinks quite a bit when cooked. That frypan full might be a cupful when they are done.  

I have dried winter chanterelles and then added them to soup and stew to add something special to winter meals. Pop them into the dehydrator, and then once they are dry put them into a canning jar with the lid on tight. Once I lucked out and had warm day with a light breeze to lay winter chanterelles out on a sheet in the morning. They were dry by late afternoon!

Winter Chanterelle (Craterellus tubaeformis

Here are a few great mushroom books:

"Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest" by Steve Trudell and Joe Ammirati

"Mushrooms Demystified" by David Arora

"All That the Rain Promises, and More..."  by David Arora

In the rainy fall forests of Southeast Alaska the winter chanterelles are a touch of sunshine. May they bring a smile to you when you see them.

Alaska Beachcomber

More posts on mushrooms in Southeast Alaska: Golden Chanterelle, Hedgehogs, Edible Mushroom Walk in Wrangell

More on subsistence food and medicine in Southeast Alaska: