The Stinkhorns Stink
Netted Stinkhorn

Netted Stinkhorn

General Information

There's no polite way of saying it: stinkhorns are gross, and they stink so strongly you usually smell them before you see them.

Identification

These distinctive mushrooms have a single, unbranched, erect stalk, sometimes gaudily colored, leading to Linnaeus aptly placing them in a genus he called Phallus (which has since been split into additional unsavory genera). The stalk is slimy, especially toward the tip, where the spores are concentrated.

And the entire mushroom hatches from an "egg," which, unlike a puffball, reveals layers of slime cut open.

Reproduction

The mushroom spreads its spores, which are present in the slime, by attracting flies and other creatures that like decaying flesh. The slime sticks to the insects, which then transport the spores.

This is quite an advanced method of reproduction, paralleling flowering plants (which didn't evolve until toward the end of the age of the dinosaurs), the most advanced members of the plant kingdom, which use insects for pollination (not all flowering plants depend on insects — some use less efficient wind pollination).

Beetles Devour Stinkhorn

Beetles Finishing Off a Stinkhorn

Ecology

Stinkhorns are saprophytes: the fungus under the stinkhorn or egg grows through wood chips or organic material in the ground and decomposes it.

Habitat and Range

Stinkhorns tend to grow in cultivated areas, i.e., urban parks, wood chips, and composted soil, throughout the US (and around the world).

Season

Sniff for (or look for) stinkhorns in the summer and fall.

Edibility

Stinkhorns are too disgusting to eat, although none that I know of are poisonous. Nevertheless, people have tried eating the cooked eggs of some species after removing the slime layer. I reluctantly tried one bite of a cooked stinkhorn egg just once, so I could speak about the experience first-hand. I noticed very little flavor and a markedly unpleasant texture before I spit it out!

Then a friend astonished me by telling me that shop people were selling dried stinkhorns in New York City's Chinatown (they're supposed to be a delicacy in China once the slime is removed). He even went so far as to buy me a package of dehydrated Chinese stinkhorns, an odorless "food" I had no way of identifying (I don't speak Chinese) that people in China have been eating for centuries.

I added this to a soup, and found it to have no flavor, and a weird squishy texture that people in China apparently like, but I found very unpleasant. Perhaps with proper seasonings, you could use this species to make a vegetarian mock squid dish!

Caution

Never eat, or even pick stinkhorns in New Guinea, where the Iban people (former headhunters) call it ghost penis fungus. It's the member of a warrior who was decapitated in battle, and the twice-mutilated fighter will rise from the ground and pursue you until he cuts off your head with his headhunting sword!

Uses and Misuses

The best use of stinkhorns is for professional naturalists to use for lecture-demonstrations, but even this can be problematic:

In 2001, I found the front yard of a house near where my fiancée Leslie lived covered with Ravenel's stinkhorn. I should have left them there for Ravenel, but put a bunch in a bag and stored that in Leslie's refrigerator for a few days, since I would be departing from her place to give a presentation in a library.

Stinkhorns are one of nature's most foul-smelling creations, but they're nothing compared to decomposing stinkhorns! After a few days, Leslie noticed that she couldn't open her refrigerator without coming close to passing out.

After she identified the source of the putrescence and threw out the bag, she still had to scrub the refrigerator thoroughly and wait a few months before the smell went away. Miraculously, she still married me in 2002!

Elegant Stinkhorn
Elegant Stinkhorn
Ravenel's Stinkhorn
Ravenel's Stinkhorn