'Alien' Puffball Mushrooms Are the Newest Internet Obsession

You might have seen them on your fall walks or you might have seen them all over your TikTok For You Page, but you certainly wouldn't have missed them.

The large egg-shaped puffball mushrooms are growing online, as internet users are becoming obsessively fascinated with the fungi found across North America and what you can do with it.

"#puffball" has over 52 million views on TikTok, while "#puffballmushroom" has 39 million views, filled with videos of people hunting for and cooking the bizarre fungi.

"I've seen so many puffballs all over my For You Page today. Before today, I didn't even know they existed," commented one user.

Forager Gabrielle Cerberville amassed over 1 million likes on a video of her finding a puffball, uploaded to her account @chaoticforager. They told Newsweek: "The great thing about puffballs is that they're relatively easy for beginner foragers to identify. There are many types of puffballs, but the massive ones that are currently trending on TikTok (Calvatia gigantea) are unmistakable: look for big white alien volleyballs in open forests, meadows, and lawns.

"When you split them open, they should be pure white inside. If they look discolored in any way, they're too mature to eat and should be left. The best ones 'squeak' when sliced, and older specimens might start to smell a bit like feet, so it's important to process them right away."

The video can also be seen here.

Cerberville, along with other TikTokers, turns her puffball finds into an array of dishes and documents it online: "Puffball mushrooms don't have much flavor on their own, but I have found that there are several good ways to eat them: you can use them like tofu in stir fries and curries, you can slice the larger ones and turn them into gluten-free pizza crusts, and even bread them to make puffball parmesan or katsu.

"However, keep in mind that like most mushrooms, puffballs contain plenty of water, which usually needs to be sweated out in a dry frying pan before you add butter or oil, otherwise you might end up with an unpleasant texture."

Despite puffball mushrooms being edible and instantly recognizable, there are still some dangers when it comes to foraging them. When fungi mushrooms grow old they develop spores, which are comparable to the seeds of a flower.

The puffball turns into a hollow and hard shell, with a powder-like substance inside—these are the spores. "It's certainly something to be avoided breathing in spores because one, they can have allergens and cause allergic reactions a bit like hay fever," Lynne Boddy, professor of microbial ecology at Cardiff University, told Newsweek.

@lights108__

If you wanna know how it tasted or how to store it check out part II on my channel😊❤️ 🍄#puffballmushroom #storage #cooking #wildmushrooms

♬ original sound - SavannahC

The video can also be viewed here.

The online fascination with foraging doesn't just begin and end with puffballs though, despite TikTok's current hyper-fixation with the fungi—but it's not without splitting opinions.

Cerberville told Newsweek that though it's great to develop an interest through TikTok, it's dangerous for it to be your only source of foraging information: "I think TikTok is a great place for people to learn some good fundamentals like honorable harvest, basic concepts of plant and fungal anatomy, and 'did you know you could eat this' with some of the more unmistakable organisms one might find walking around the forest or neighborhood," she said.

"I think if the only thing a person does is watch TikToks to learn their identification skills, they're asking for trouble because it's impossible to provide an in-depth treatise on a plant or a mushroom in less than a minute. Identification and preparation should always be multifaceted: foraging communities either online or in-person, field guides, certain websites like www.mushroomexpert.com which have a reputation for good information, longer-form YouTube videos, apps to some extent, and of course Indigenous ways of knowing and interacting with the natural world."

It's this that concerns Boddy too, who completely advises against taking up foraging as an internet trend-inspired hobby. "I really do not advocate doing this. You have to be with somebody who is a real expert if you want to eat something you found in the wild, because there is so much chance of picking something that will really, really make you ill and in some cases there are killer fungi. So the Deathcap, Amanita phalloides, for example. You don't even need to eat a whole [one] before you get enough to kill you or damage your organs," she said.

The online interest does at least have some benefits in raising interest in the importance of nature and fungi, according to both Cerberville and Boddy.

"Foraging infuses the natural world with value. If you reliably get your dinner from the little pocket of wetlands down the road, suddenly that place becomes 'the spot where I pick blueberries,' and you're less likely to be passive about somebody bulldozing it and building apartments there. You're also more likely to start participating in permaculture, to make foraging easier for you and for future generations," said Cerberville.

"Without fungi, the plants wouldn't work," explained Boddy. "Fungi are decomposers and they break down dead stuff. They've got a huge array of enzymes that they can use, so they can break down probably any naturally made organic materials. They break down the dead stuff and that releases nutrients to allow plants to carry on growing. Giant puffballs do that sort of role.

"Other fungi you see play a different but equally important role is that they actually seed plants with water and nutrients."

Correction 10/27/21, 1 pm. ET: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Cerberville.