There are so many different mushrooms out there, step out the door and you will see tiny little turkey tails sprouting from logs, toadstools springing up in the lawn, puffballs, turkey tails, shelf fungi and slime molds.
The strangest group of mushrooms has to be the stinkhorns. These are famous for emerging overnight, covered with disgusting-smelling slime, and often resemble various, weird things – from devil’s fingers to the feature of dog anatomy from which one group of stinkhorns gets their name (the Phallaceae).
I recently received an email from someone who had a stinkhorn sprouting in her yard that resembled a strange, alien cephalopod. It was a squid stinkhorn (Pseudocolus fusiformis aka the stinky squid). As a stinkhorn fancier myself, I was so jealous of her find. I have never seen one of these. This stinkhorn typically has three to five yellow or pale orange arms that erupt from the ground, fused at the top that resemble a squid sticking its tentacles out of the ground. She texted her 10-year old grandson a photo. His reply was “Cool! Is it tasty?" Her grown son wondered whether it had come from outer space. That’s what these stinkhorns look like to me: the first step in an alien takeover of planet Earth.
As to whether they are tasty, most of the stinkhorns aren't considered poisonous, but taste bad enough that they aren’t considered edible. That said, there are a number of stinkhorns highly prized in many Asian cultures. I have an American friend who tried one, but couldn’t get past their slimey, earthy (but not earthy in a good way) taste.
I don’t know what Charles Darwin’s very Victorian granddaughter, Etty, would have to say about the stinky squid, but, according to Sue and Pat O’Reilly from First Nature (first-nature.com) Etty and other Victorians felt rather strongly about the common stinkhorn. They “...were so disgusted or so embarrassed at the form of these phallic fungi that they attacked them with cudgels at dawn rather than allowing them to fruit and spread their spores.”
So, while stinkhorn mushrooms vary widely in appearance, they all share a stinky, slimey quality and, at some point in their development, are covered with a slime that smells like decay or perhaps feces. This odor attracts flies. Look closely at a stinkhorn and you are bound to see flies. When flies visit the fruiting body, they pick up the slime, which contains the spores, and carry the spores far and wide – an essential part of the mushroom life cycle.
The mushrooms, otherwise known as the "fruiting bodies" are the reproductive structures of an often vast underground network of the fungi body that, when ready to reproduce, send up these fruiting bodies. In the case of the stinkhorns, the fruiting bodies start out as an egg-like structure that erupts into the squid or whatever shape the stinkhorn is destined to form.
The fruiting body, the above ground part, is there to produce and distribute spores. Different types of mushrooms use different strategies for spore dispersal. Puffballs use the wind, tiny bird’s nest fungi use raindrops, stinkhorns use flies. Under the right conditions, spores are released into the surrounding environment, when they land in a hospitable spot they start dividing and grow into thread-like hyphae. These are the threads that fill the earth. Turn over a log, search through the leaf litter and you will find hyphae. These, not the typical mushroom or toadstool, are the true body of the fungus. The hyphae are the stomach, the decomposers, these are what thread through a dead tree trunk, a pile of old leaves or garden mulch.
Now that I know stinky squids live here (I didn’t until seeing the photos), I intend to look even more carefully at the ground-edges of lawns and the forest floor, which are good places to find these fantastical other-worldly members of the fungus kingdom.
Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. She may be reached at email@example.com. Read more of her Nature News columns online.