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Garden Q&A: What you should know about the yellow-stalked puffball

The yellow-stalked puffball, Calostoma lutescens.
The yellow-stalked puffball, Calostoma lutescens.(Home and Garden Information Center / Handout)

I found this growing out of leaf litter on the Appalachian Trail. At first glance I thought it was a spring wildflower, but obviously it’s not! I’ve spent a lot of time looking for it online but no luck. What is this?

That’s a beautiful fungus you found, with red puckered lips on its yellow spore case and a pedestal covered with gelatinous flakes. We think this is the yellow-stalked puffball, Calostoma lutescens. They are known to be mycorrhizal with oak trees in the Appalachian area. Most mycorrhizae are microscopic soil fungi, but all have an incredibly important role. Living either in or on tree roots, their long filaments reach out into the soil, absorbing nutrients that are transferred to their lucky host. This symbiotic relationship exponentially — and crucially — increases the reach of tree roots.

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Can I winter sow vegetable and flower seeds outside now, or is it too late?

The term "winter sowing" is used a couple of ways. It can refer to sowing seeds in the fall that germinate and overwinter. Too late for that! It also refers to sowing seeds in late winter/early spring. It’s not too late for that. For vegetables, sow cool tolerant vegetables such as spinach and kale (not heat-loving vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, basil — wait for warmer temperatures for those). In the garden, you can use row cover (frost cloth) to promote growth and protect young plants if we get a cold snap. Right now, you can also winter sow hardy annual flowers such as larkspur, snapdragons, calendula and bachelor buttons. These flowers actually prefer cooler temperatures. If you sow into containers such as cut down plastic milk jugs and soda bottles, open up the containers if we get some unseasonably warm temperatures again (so the plants won't "cook" in high heat). Later in the month, you could try sowing some plants that like warmer temperatures (marigolds, cosmos). It really comes down to a bit of experimentation. When using jugs/bottles, the idea is to "push" the germination a little bit earlier by creating a mini greenhouse. Keep records of when you sow and temperature conditions, so you can make adjustments to your planting times next year.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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