Inside The New York Botanical Garden

The Funkiest of Fungi

Posted in From the Field on March 16 2012, by Matt Newman

Dr. Roy Halling’s jet-setting ways are, while enviable, a product of necessity–the world’s most outlandish fungi won’t scribble themselves into the mycological register. But while his travels across the globe often carry him to dim conifer forests, sweltering jungles, and likely the grimiest reaches of the most foetid swamps, it was in a far less feral environment that Roy found his latest winning specimen.

While visiting Australia, Dr. Halling–the NYBG‘s resident Curator of Mycology–came upon a rather strange customer (though delightful to any mushroom fanatic) growing in a friend’s suburban Brisbane garden. It’s not altogether uncommon down under. However, seeing something so visibly sinister popping up alongside your vegetables here in the northeastern United States could be cause for confusion, alarm, fascination, or cries of impending apocalypse in the vein of Chicken Little. It’s just that odd-looking.

The Phallus multicolor mushroom lives up to its name, donning a fire-and-brimstone color scheme that would make anyone stop and gawk. But the picture alone does this pungent fungus little justice. Much like the corpse flower, it has a nasty secret (that’s…not actually all that well-kept once you get close enough).

As part of the stinkhorn family (Phallaceae in this case), the fungus offs an odor ranging from sickly sweetness to week-old roadkill, emulating the smell of carrion and dung in order to draw flies–think of it as a bizarre, oppositional version of wildflowers attracting bees for pollination. The black-brown material covering much of the reticulated apex is described by Dr. Halling as an “odorous slime,” carrying spores that are dispersed by the flies, which eat and spread it around. Once the goo has been cleared away by rot-loving guests, the cap is left bare, displaying a creased and pitted surface of bright yellow or orange with a golden skirt beneath. In fact, some stinkhorn species with this crinkly cap are often mistaken for morels, though the sticky, reeking mess of slime they wear is usually enough to dissuade would-be mushroom hunters from scarfing them down. (Most of them.)

As families go, those that make up the stinkhorn group are a strange and varied lot, ranging in shape from the blatantly phallic to the geometric, cage-like structures of Colus pusillus. But while they run the gamut from “gross” to “vaguely upsetting,” there’s no need to fear them like you might an unassuming toadstool. Other than their stink, there’s nothing toxic about these unfortunately smelly ‘shrooms. Still, even without a deadly habit, try not to eat these–something tells me that the odor isn’t masking the most transcendent subtleties in flavor since the truffle.

As the southern hemisphere exits its warm season, we’re just entering ours, and stinkhorns aren’t relegated to Queensland alone. It was only this past September that Dr. Halling found a stinkhorn of a different color growing in an equally humble location: our Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory parking lot. Quality garden mulch proves the perfect incubator for these rank–albeit fascinating–fungi. Mutinus elegans is seen here sporting the same sort of spore mucilage made so fashionable on its Aussie cousin.

As summer approaches, and the season ripens for the return of the fungus, we hope to see Dr. Halling back to his familiar antics, combing the NYBG grounds in search of mushrooms both novel and familiar. Beneath the evergreens of the Benenson Ornamental Conifer collection, near the old oak by Twin Lakes, wherever he can find them–Roy has something of a nose for this sort of thing. For more on the mushroom magician’s travels, discoveries, and mycological lore, have a look at the video he took part in last year, after the rains of hurricanes Lee and Irene made for a mycologist’s wonderland in New York.


Janice Johansen said:

I live in Defiance, OH. I found a growth of stinkhorn protruding from my marigolds & mulch next to the sidewalk. This is the second year of the mulch but fertilized dirt was tilled into this flower border. After researching the web, I found your site to identify this fungus. No one around here had ever seen this species. Yes, it definitely stinks! I thought you would appreciate a siting in this area. Sincerely, Janice Johansen

CM Marvin said:

I found these in my garden this week and wondered what the heck they were! How do you get rid of them? This summer has brought a ton of odd fungi to my Southeastern Pennsylvania garden!!!

McCall said:

Experienced these the last week of August in Knightdale NC- did not know what they were. Awful smell and something never seen before and hope to never see again in my mulch.

Roy Halling said:

In order to get rid of the stinkhorns, you need to remove the mulch or wait a year or two for the mulch to decompose. The unseen part of the stinkhorn fungus is helping to do exactly that – decompose the complex organic matter of mulch into simpler forms. The less complex stuff is then available to other organisms. Natural recycling!

Jennifer Sears said:

Greetings from Bloomington, Indiana where I have for the first time encountered this smelly little pest! Just thought you might like to know that this guy is on the move west during what is proving to be a very wet spring for us! Thank you for your website! We were very perplexed (even my neighbor who works for the Dept of Natural Resources had never encountered this one!) your website certainly answered many of our questions!
Jennifer Sears

Christine E. said:

Another sighting in St. Charles, MO. Mulched heavily last year and, voila, stinkhorns this year! Thanks for the information to help identify this quirky new comer to my garden.

Amy L. said:

My Mom and I found these in the mulch in her yard in Springfield,Il this past weekend. I thought it was a piece of orange rope with black electrical tape on the end! Crazy looking little things. We didn’t notice a smell though.

Maree said:

Found these in my flower bed in Midland, MI. Thanks to your website we were able to understand what they are and where they came from.

Michelle said:

I live in central Ohio and have had the Mutinus Elegans species all season long this year in my mulch. You’re right in that they like the quality mulch since I purchased the premium brand at Lowe’s. I’m glad to know they are harmless because they are quite scary looking! I had no idea what these things were and was thinking maybe my garden was being infested with some type of destructive pest. I have some in the garden now. Is it safe to say as long as the flies keep spreading them around they’ll keep popping up? Do they survive the winter?

Julie p. said:

I have found these in my garden first time ever. Looks like a red finger coming from the ground with small hole in center. Like a candle with no wick.
I have not got close enough to smell it, thought it might be poisonous?

Cindy J said:

I live in Hampton Roads, Virginia and have seen these for the first time in my flower beds and those at work as well. Had no idea wha they were, know they were oddly pretty but kind of gross with the slime. Thanks for the article to help me identify this new fungi.

Don j said:

In Wichita Ks, got these in a flower bed last year that had been recently mulched. They come up and tend to die within a day, but I try to remove them and dig to remove the white nodules before they come up. For every mushroom that comes up, I usually find 10 or so nodules.

Brian said:

Found the reddish stinkhorns in Northwest Arkansas at my apartments in some mulch after a rain. Looked crazy like little tentacles or crab meat.

Alex said:

Find these all over in PA in our town, and found a mess of eggs today. Now that I know what the these things are I know to dig the eggs out, but I never noticed any smell to the ones I found