What’s in a Name?

It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things.

~Oscar Wilde

I enjoy cold winter days as I tend to pay more attention to the little things in our woods like patterns, surprise colors, and living things that I sometimes pay less attention to in warmer months when birds, insects, and flowers seem to always demand my attention. Mosses, lichens, slime molds, and fungi suddenly take more prominence (although they really deserve our appreciation all year).

This has been a good season for fungi in our woods, and one group, in particular, really caught my eye. In November, I spotted several clusters of round white blobs on downed trees or the mulch in our yard. As Fall progressed, I began to recognize them as puffballs, so named for their spore dispersal mechanism. As they dry, they develop splits on the surface and any physical disturbance, such as raindrops, the tap of a finger, or an accidental footstep, will send clouds of brownish spores up in a tiny billow of “smoke”. I photographed one on a pathway in our yard back in November and again right before the holidays. Below are the photos and a short video of the spores being released.

A cluster of Wolf-fart Puffballs in our yard in early November (click photos to enlarge)

The same cluster in December

When I came across some drying puffballs in the woods a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t resist making puffball smoke by gently poking them with my finger. Here’s a slo-mo clip of puffballs doing their thing.

— A slow motion video of what happens when you touch ripe puffballs

Thinking I might want to post this, I decided to learn more about these unusual fungi. When I put the photo in SEEK, the all-things-natural identification app, I loved the common name that came up – Wolf-fart Puffballs. Yep, that’s what I said, wolf fart. The scientific name is Lycoperdon pyriforme. It turns out the translation of that name defines the common name – “Lyco” means wolf in Greek; “perdon” means to break wind. Together, they mean wolf fart! People understand how the word fart came to be favored given the visible puff that comes up when one is touched, but why the association of wolves? Who knows. And “pyriforme” means pear-shaped referring to the shape of some of the structures.

After laying next to a clump to get the ground level video, and having a breeze blow some of the spores my way, I thought that perhaps it is not a good idea to breathe in the spores. And with some research I discovered that I was right! If you inhale large numbers of spores you may suffer from respiratory problems. But, medical experts say it requires inhaling a large quantity of spores to show any signs of lung distress, so I suffered no ill consequences.

As always, I am amazed at the wonders just outside our door. Take some walks this winter and see what catches your eye.

12 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Yet another fun fact, and one that gave me a chuckle. A great teaching tool for kids, the majority of whom dissolve into giggles when they hear the word “fart.” My 20 year old even found this amusing. Thanks Mike, and Happy New Year!

  2. As always I learn so much from your observations and thank you for sharing them! Best wishes to you in the new year.

  3. I have not encountered such fungi in my walks through the bush though I consider myself a careful observer of smaller life forms. I cannot resist the observation that from early November to December they are transformed into, “old farts”.

  4. Thanks for educating us on this interesting fungi. I actually saw A clump, the other day and couldn’t resist touching it and wondered what it was. Now I know the interesting name and background.

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