How can a mushroom that is so beautiful smell so bad?
Well, meet the stinkhorns – a group of fungi that uses odor to their advantage, but not necessary ours. As with most fungi, stinkhorns respond to changing temperature and moisture conditions to produce fruiting bodies that we know as mushrooms. The sole purpose of mushrooms is the production of spores, that like the seeds of flowering plants, will germinate to create new fungi. In the case of stinkhorns, the odor that their “mushrooms” produced is the key to how these organisms spread their spores. It is all about attracting insects that are drawn to the strong odor emanating from a stinkhorn once it has matured. And while the odor can be quite overwhelming for humans, insects love it and can detect these odors from much further distances. Flies are the most common insects drawn to stinkhorns, but beetles may also show up to feed upon the fetid slime that oozes from the inside surfaces of the stinkhorn mushroom.
Embedded in the slime are the spores that either end up being eaten (and deposited later) or stuck to the bodies of these insects that then transport them to a new location where they germinate and start the cycle anew. In south Mississippi, the Colum Stinkhorn, Clathrus columnatus, is the one of the most commonly encountered of these odiferous mushrooms, emerging from piles of wood chips or mulch in late fall or winter. A nice walk during our relatively pleasant cool weather can easily be interrupted by a gasp, followed by the question – “what is that smell?!!!” or as we Cajuns might utter, “Mon Dieu, Qu’est Que C’est?” 😊
In the case of the Colum Stinkhorn, the source of the smell is easily found, given the orange/red color, size, shape, and often multiple stinkhorns rising from the chips or mulch. This particular stinkhorn species is not native to this country, likely brought here by the import of mulch from other parts of the world. In any case, should you brave the smell and take a closer look, this stinkhorn is quite striking. The stinkhorn itself emerges from a light-colored bulbous structure peeking through the chips called an “egg”. Anywhere from two to eight spongy columns, attached at the top of the structure, expands outward. The inside surfaces of the columns are soon covered by an oozing coating of olive-brown slime. You will have to admit that the contrast of colors is quite striking. Our Colum Stinkhorn is a member of one of two families of stinkhorns: the Clathraceae that include stinkhorns consisting of branched stems. The Phallaceae consist of species that have unbranched stems. In most cases, the stinkhorns are quite striking in appearance, including their shapes, colors and textures. Some unfold to produce intricate lacy structures.
These striking structures may hint at another means of spreading spores, as many small mammals and turtles also relish mushrooms, that are easily seen. So should you encounter a less than pleasant odor during your walks in the coming weeks and months, do try to hold your breath long enough to stop and marvel at the beauty of stinkhorns.
Hope to see you in OUR great outdoors!!!