Desert Shaggy Mane or Inky Cap Puffballs


A mature Shaggy Mane with fingers for scale. Photo by Bruce Lund.

While mushrooms, puffballs, and other fungi forms are abundant in wetter parts of the country, they are truly scarce in our dehydrated desert world. However, there is one notable exception called the Desert Shaggy Mane (or Desert Inky Cap) and it has sprung up this week in more abundance than I’ve ever seen along the sides of Highway 168 in the Warm Springs area (between 7-9 miles west of Interstate Highway I-15 in case you want to look for yourself).

Even if scarce, this fungus is predictable – give the hot summer desert a good drenching and Desert Shaggy Manes will arise in two weeks. This present crop demonstrates their reliability: on September 12, my rain gauge recorded 1.10 inch of precipitation and two weeks later starting about September 25, scores of Inky Cap/Shaggy Mane puffballs were springing up where there were none before. And these are in the most numbers and the largest sizes in my experience, with individuals standing up to 8 inches tall.

The rough and bumpy surface of the top gives this fungus its ‘shaggy’ name, while ‘inky cap’ comes from the dark spores inside. As each fungus dries out, cracks form in the cap and the slightest touch or breeze releases thousands of dark spores into the air in smoky puffs (this dispersal mechanism makes it a ‘puffball’ as opposed to a ‘mushroom’ which drops its spores from so-called gills on the underside of a cap). To say the spores get spread far and wide is a dramatic understatement! Besides our American deserts, this same puffball species occur in deserts around the planet in Africa (Yemen, Nigeria, South Africa), Asia (India, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, China), and Australia and is a remarkable planet-wide distribution pattern for any species.

Not surprisingly, native peoples living in these harsh deserts with few natural resources have found a variety of uses for this fungus: As hair coloring for instance: Just for Men will never make it with Australian Aborigines who use the dark spores to blacken white hair in beards. As food: when puffballs are newly emerging and the spores are still white and moist, puffballs are edible (in my experience, less than 1 on a scale of 1 to 10). As body paint: native peoples adorn their faces and bodies with black streaks and splotches by rubbing the infinitesimally small spores into the skin. I can attest this works having gotten the spores on my hands and being amazed how water resistant they are and really hard to wash off.

I feel a caveat is appropriate with this article: this fungal phenomenon is quite striking when and where you find it. The catch is that it occurs in widely scattered places in small patches. So don’t feel let down if you a) have not noticed it, and b) don’t ever see it.

Bruce Lund is a retired biologist and has a lifelong love of nature instilled by his grandparents and some remarkable teachers. He has lived with his wife, Flo, in Moapa since 1997.

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  1. Wildfire says

    Cool! And a very well written article, sir! Well done! Hope I see some of these someday!

  2. Wildfire says

    Cool! And a very well written article, sir! Well done! Hope I see some of these someday!

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