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WOMAN'S CLAIM MUSHROOMS INTO COMPETITION ACROSS WNY AS RESIDENTS TOUT THEIR PUFFBALLS

Wendy Ellis' giant mushroom has unleashed deep-seated "puffball envy" throughout Western New York as dozens of callers challenge her claim to a possible listing in the Guinness Book of Records.

There is even a case of a purloined puffball, the first fungus-rustling incident The Buffalo News has encountered -- although the victim says she would not press charges if she knew who took it.

Since the story of the Cherry Creek discovery appeared in The News, callers from Akron, Alden, Boston, Clarence, East Aurora, Marilla, Hamburg and Hamburg's Woodlawn area -- among others -- claim puffballs exceeding Ellis', which measured 39 1/2 inches in circumference and weighed 3.85 pounds.

Norb Gregoire found three larger ones growing on his lot in Woodlawn, said his son, Chris.

"The biggest reached 63 1/2 inches in circumference. Dad was amazed how fast it grew overnight. He found them when he was cutting the grass and put in a stake so he would not cut them down. The big one pushed over the stake."

Betty Palisano found hers by the stable of her Taylor Road farm in Hamburg. The puffball was 45 1/4 inches in circumference at last sighting.

"I was sort of watching it to see how it would stack up against the other big puffballs in the area, but on Wednesday morning it was gone. I think my tenant took it to give to a friend."

Amy Mangay of Akron has one that's "5 inches bigger" than Ellis' mushroom and still growing. Richard Maines of Lancaster harvested and ate a giant puffball that weighed "at least 5 pounds" and was 47 inches in circumference, while Clayton Hopper of Marilla has been picking and eating giant puffballs all week, the largest weighing in at "6 pounds and the size of a basketball."

The giant puffball, or calvatia gigantea, always causes a stir in the fall, said Ernst Both, the Buffalo Science Museum's "mushroom" curator emeritus.

"There will be a picture in the paper claiming to be the biggest, and the next day bigger ones are reported," he said.

Puffballs are edible, Both said, although he prefers the bolete family of fungi, mushrooms that kept him and his family from starvation in Transylvania after World War II.

"When I finally got to America, I couldn't even look a mushroom in the face for several years," he said. "But I was so familiar with European boletes, among the most beautiful and nutritious of the mushrooms, that I wanted to see what American boletes were like."

The result is a huge, 20,000-specimen collection and a recently published scholarly book, the Boletes of North America.

Both says puffballs are easy to identify, especially when big. "But be sure it is a puffball you are eating," he warned.

"Cut them open, and if the flesh is white and featureless, it is a puffball. If the thing is over-ripe, the flesh starting to turn yellow, it may bring on cramps and diarrhea in some people; and if you get a false puffball -- it has a sort of beige skin and the interior is more gray than white -- avoid it."

The largest puffball Both has gathered was the size of a basketball and weighed 9 1/2 pounds.

"And the record, I think, is about the size of one of those medicine balls or beach balls you toss around -- say 30 inches in diameter. It weighed something like 20 pounds."

At present, the Guiness organization has no record for the giant puffball, and, according to its Web site, the likelihood of establishing such a category is "slim."

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