This is a Puffball, a fungus with the common name of the Devil’s Snuff-Box or Warty Puffball. It is found singly in autumn in woodland, and is covered in beautiful, jewel-like bumps.

Lycoperdon perlatum - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

Fungi are very strange organisms. They’re not plants, and they are classified in a kingdom all of their own. They are made of chitin, which is the same material which insects, crabs and fish scales are made of. There are well over 100,000 different species of fungi, which includes the mushrooms we can buy in the supermarket, the yeasts used in bread and beer, the moulds which produce penicillin, together with 8,000 diseases of plants and 300 species which can cause diseases in humans. Their spores are everywhere, in the soil, in homes and in the atmosphere. Many grow slowly and silently through soil, with microscopic white threads, secreting digestive juices on any dead matter and absorbing it. Others grow between your toes and give you a nasty case of athlete’s foot.

Fungi have been very important in the evolution of life on Earth. There have been two massive flowerings of fungal abundance and diversity, both after much of life on Earth was destroyed. 252 million years ago was the Great Dying, where most of life on Earth was destroyed by increased temperatures due to the natural release of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere. It’s possible that fungi were the dominant form of life on Earth after this. Then fungi had another resurgence, 65 million years ago, after the extinction event which caused the dinosaurs and much of the rest of life to die out. The whole of the Earth was like one massive compost heap. It must have been mushroom heaven, with the majority of life lying dead and unable to rot without them.

Fungi are killed by artificial fertiliser and cut to ribbons by ploughing. Many live in close association with plants, often only growing with specific species of trees, their lives closely entwined under the soil.

When you look at this Puffball, do you see warts or jewels?

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