Stinkhorns. Sort of spooky and surprising in the landscape. As one website puts it, “It ‘hatches.’ It smells like death. Some have a questionable shape. What’s not to love about stinkhorn mushrooms?”
I smelled and saw — in that order — my first stinkhorn in Nov. 2015 along a trail here in New Hampshire, and my second and third, which looked very different, on a trail on Jekyll Island, GA, about a month later.
Below: I think the first (in NH) is Ravenel’s stinkhorn. The second (in GA) is probably Clathrus columnatus (column stinkhorn) but could be Pseudocolus fusiformis (stinky squid stinkhorn) — they’re very similar except that the former has arms arising individually from the vulva or egg while the latter’s arms arise from a stem structure close to the ground; the arching nature of the apex makes me think it’s column stinkhorn, which is common in the south eastern U.S. and gulf coast, and is found only as far north as Illinois or Pennsylvania, while stinky squid is found up into New England. The third, also in found GA around the same time, is Mutinus elegans or dog stinkhorn.
Since then, I’ve been seeking them out, finding them rarely and in small quantity, often just one at a time.
Until this fall. Despite, or perhaps because of, our very dry spring & summer, suddenly with just a few rains there are stinkhorns in quantity popping up all over.
There were probably fifty to a hundred stinkhorns (Ravenel’s, I think) between two adjoining trail systems, The Fells and Sunset Hill Trail in Newbury, NH, at the end of September this year, in all stages of growth and deterioration:
Many if not all of the dozens of stinkhorns at The Fells were in bark mulch covering a trail, which is the first time I’ve seen them in anything but natural woodland soil or on and among logs. They’re saprobic — they grow on decaying organisms — and can be found in deciduous or coniferous forests, in mulch, in sawdust, in lawns … a friend in northern Florida had a lawn filled with them at times, much to her dismay.
A few other Ravenel’s stinkhorns seen along other NH trails this year and prior:
If you don’t know much about stinkhorns and wonder why I’m posting these rude photos, here’s a quick primer (sources listed below).
A stinkhorn is a mushroom, a fungus, occurring worldwide, and in North America from the tropics to Quebec, Canada, into the north midwest U.S., and as far west as California (most species introduced, not native, there). They often — though I didn’t know this until this fall — appear in mulch, their tiny hyphae (fungal threads) carried in the shredded bark or soil unknowingly.
Stinkhorns are both visually and aromatically striking. As far as looks, some varieties resemble penises (human or canine) while others look like lobster claws, squid, or bendy geometric shapes. They can be a vivid red or orange, white or beige with a putrefied olive greenish-black cap, covered in elegant white netting (sometimes spoken of as a veil or lacy skirt), or in the case of the “eggs” — the undeveloped fungus from which the stems emerge — round, white (sometimes pinkish or purplish), and oozing with cream — rather like a brie cheese.
Here’s one with a “lacy skirt,” from the Sunset Hill trail in Oct. 2018. It’s probably a Ravenel’s stinkhorn but possibly a common stinkhorn (P. impudicus); Ravenel’s is the more common stinkhorn in the eastern U.S., while P. impudicus, with a more pitted cap, is more often found west of the Mississippi River.
And these are some “eggs,” from which the stem (or receptaculum) and full mushroom emerge. They’re pretty amazing.
This is the same egg, photographed on three successive days, 28-30 Sept. 2020; you can see it starting to ooze on the third day:
These are others in the same area in Newbury, NH in late Sept. 2020:
Now about the smell. Some describe it as decaying flesh or dung, but the scent of something very like semen or bleach is what alerts me to their presence (and also reminds me a bit of brie cheese, come to think of it); the actual stinkhorn could be, depending on the wind, many yards away from where it’s detected by nose. The smell of decomposition attracts flies, who gobble the slime as their legs become covered in the stinkhorn spores that rub off the gleba, a sticky spore-bearing mass on the cap or at the stem tip. The flies carry the spores on their legs and feet and through their digestive tracts (apparently the gleba has a laxative effect …), spreading them hither and thither. I’ve actually spotted stinkhorns without smelling them or sighting the mushrooms but only by noticing a small swarm of tiny flies focused on something near the ground.
If you research stinkhorns online, you’ll see that people (like my Florida friend) often want to remove them from their property, which is difficult to do as their microscopic fungal threads will remain in the soil even if all the fruiting bodies, i.e., the mushrooms, are plucked and carried away (in the same way that the apple tree remains even if you pick all the apples). They’re not poisonous and they don’t harm plants or grass; in fact, these fungi benefit the ecosystem by recycling plant debris into nutrients, which improves soil fertility for all.
There are two families of stinkhorns. The Phallaceae stinkhorns have unbranched or single stems, including species of Mutinus and Phallus. Ravenel’s Stinkhorn, Phallus ravenelii, and the Common Stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus, are both found here in New Hampshire, though as I mentioned earlier, the Ravenel’s is more common in the eastern U.S.. The Ravenel’s cap is smoother than that of the P. impudicus, which has a noticeably pitted or ridged cap, like a morel. These are the only species I’ve come across in NH, but I understand that there are others here, including the Pseudocolus fusiformis aka the stinky squid in the Phallaceae family. The Clathraceae family includes stinkhorns with branched stems and those with lattice structures, such as Clathrus, Lysurus, Colus, Laternea.
Some people eat the “eggs,” cooked or pickled, and some cuisines use the mature stinkhorns dried or in stir-fries and soups. You can read about that at Forager | Chef and at british | local | food. I wouldn’t eat them but I don’t eat any fungus. (Obligatory reminder to always identify with certainty the mushroom you’re about to eat and always test your tolerance to a tiny portion of non-poisonous fungi before ingesting more.)
Here’s a fun fact: “Stinkhorns develop rapidly, sometimes growing up to four to six inches per hour, and can generate enough force to break through asphalt.” Nature’s lit for sure.
I’ve written about stinkhorns before (in a post in Oct. 2018, e.g.).
They certainly look, in all their forms, like something a fevered imagination might come up with, don’t they? Freud would have a field day with stinkhorn dreamscapes.
- Stinkhorns, Michelle Keller-Pearson, rev. 15 June 2016 at WISCONSIN HORTICULTURE Division of Extension
- Stinkhorns: The Phallaceae and Clathraceae at MushroomExpert.com
- Ask Ruth: Stinkhorns by Ruth Gonzalez, 20 Nov. 2011, Organic Growers’ School
- Tales from the Wood (The Stinkhorn) at A Tramp in the Woods, 31 July 2014.
- Stinkhorn / Witch Eggs at Forager | Chef (2017)
- Stinkhorn (Witch’s Egg) at british | local | food (Oct. 2017)
- The Stinkhorn – A Mushroom Only A Mother Could Love at #InstaScience
- Common Mulch Stinkhorns by Thomas Roehl at Fungus Fact Friday, 9 June 2017
- Mushroom Morphology: Stinkhorns by Thomas Roehl at Fungus Fact Friday, 6 June 2014
Featured image: Ravenel’s stinkhorn egg cracking open, The Fells, Newbury NH, 29 Sept. 2020