Garden News Blog

Nastiest. Mushroom. Ever.

An alarming fungus is popping up quick
Called elegant stinkhorn or the devil’s dipstick

As distasteful to the nose as it is to the eyes
Its odor’s designed to attract pesky flies

Insects feed on the slimy stalk
And spread its spores around the block

A member of family Phallaceae and Mutinus genus
Most would agree that it looks like a…


It’s that time of year again. The air is crisp, the leaves are beginning to turn, and gardeners and park visitors all over Brooklyn are gasping in horror at the shockingly erect—and putrid smelling—stalks poking out of the mulch. Mutinus elegans, a very distinctive species of mushroom, is showing up in shady, damp mulch and compost piles in parks, gardens, and backyards. This phallic fungus, known as the elegant stinkhorn, dog stinkhorn, or devil’s dipstick, is stinky for a reason. Its smell is important for its unusual means of distributing spores.

Unlike typical mushrooms, which depend on wind to distribute their spores, the stinkhorn uses insects. After sprouting from an egglike bulb, the orange or red stalks produce a slimy, carrion-scented spore coating near the tip. Flies are attracted to the scent, and after feeding on it, they fly off and dispense the spores wherever they land. Should your garden be afflicted with stinkhorns, take comfort in the fact that their reign is pretty short-lived. They’re not poisonous, so you can just let them be, and those spongy, hollow stalks will shrivel a day or two after their quick growth spurt.

Today, the appearance of Mutinus elegans elicits a chuckle, but in the Victorian era, their erect shoots could be seriously distressing to chaste and honorable ladies. The story goes that Charles Darwin’s eldest daughter, Etty, was openly combative toward the fungi. Armed with a spear, she would roam the woods sniffing out the offensive stalks. As recalled by her niece, she would find one and “poke his putrid carcass into her basket.” Then, after cleansing the territory, she would secretly burn the fungi in order to protect “the morals of the maids.”

Etty would probably not appreciate Cornell University’s time-lapse video of a stinkhorn’s growth and decay, but you might!

Hannah Singer is a science intern at BBG.

    Discussion

  • Emil Fischer July 7, 2015

    This fungus gave my wife and I a chuckle when we first saw them. At times though, you can’t even tell what it is with all the flies covering them.

     

  • Blanca Oliveras December 1, 2014

    My schitzu dogs are eating them in my backyard. Are elegant stinkhorns toxic to dogs?

  • sarah October 28, 2014

    I am genuinely surprised by the lack of appreciation for stinkhorns.  I delight in them, and after years of exposure to the “aroma,” I really like it: It’s fresh, unusual, not at all putrid. To my senses, it’s really not offensive.

  • Donald September 27, 2014

    We have been seeing these in the mulch; had five pop up this morning. Thanks for the info.

  • eleanor davis May 11, 2013

    I have white mushrooms coming up. Will these also just disappear in a day or two? If not, what can I do to rid my garden of them?

  • Steven N. Severinghaus October 19, 2012

    I’m glad to see a post about these fascinating little things. I have been seeing them in various states of growth and decay among the leaf debris and mulch around BBG for the last couple of weeks:
    Flickr pics

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Image, top of page:
Mutinus elegans, a very distinctive species of mushroom, is showing up in shady, damp mulch and compost piles in parks, gardens, and backyards. Photo by Kathryn Glass.