Figure 1. A dune stinkhorn Phallus hadriani. The mushroom is easily discernible from other species of stinkhorn by its pinkish volva from which the fungus sprouts forth. (Photograph by Siôn Parkinson, 2022.)
Stinkhorn Mushroom
31st July 2023
by Siôn Parkinson
Created at:
31st July 2023
Creator:
Siôn Parkinson
Citation:
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Figure 1. A dune stinkhorn Phallus hadriani. The mushroom is easily discernible from other species of stinkhorn by its pinkish volva from which the fungus sprouts forth. (Photograph by Siôn Parkinson, 2022.)
Smells

In the natural world, we ascribe “stink” as a prefix to a great number of plants, animals, and fungi that mimic or emit various rotten smells of decaying proteins as a means to repel or attract other organisms. Stink badger, for example, a sort of skunk in the family Mephitidae squirts an oily, yellowish liquid from its anal glands to deter predators. Stinkbug Halyomorpha, a type of shield bug, smells of rancid almonds. Stinkweed, any foul-smelling plant such as Pennycress Thlaspi arvense whose crushed leaves release a strong cabbagey smell. Stinkwood, of various trees, especially Ocotea bullata, a South African tree which by all accounts smells horrid when felled. Stinking cedar Torreya taxifolia, a type of Yew tree whose leaves give off a strong odour of turpentine when bruised. Stinking iris, the “beefy” smelling Iris foetidissima. Stinking smut, the common bunt fungi Tilletia tritici, a plant pathogen used as a biological weapon in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s, and which produces in affected wheat an odour of rotting fish. And then there’s the stinkhorn, a phallic-shaped fungus that synthesises the smell of carrion and dung to attract necrophagous and coprophagous flies and beetles to help disperse its spores. 

Stinkhorns are a large and varied family of fungi distributed throughout the world. They include the common stinkhorn Phallus impudicus, the red cage stinkhorn Clathrus ruber, and the dog stinkhorn Mutinus caninus. The dune stinkhorn Phallus hadriani is much rarer in Europe, mostly confined to coastal regions where it grows in dry or sandy soil. The Dutch botanist Hadrianus Junius wrote a pamphlet about the dune stinkhorn in 1564, Phalli, ex fungorum genere, in Hollandiae sabuletis passim crescentis descriptio [The Description of the Phallus], considered to be the first publication dedicated to a single species of fungus. The impassioned interest in stinkhorns among early naturalists is hardly surprising considering the multisensory superlatives that cling to the mushroom in an encounter with one in the field. As mycologist David Arora wryly remarks in his guide to mushrooms of North America: “When stinkhorns are discussed, the language makes a startling and unprecedented qualitative leap, from monotonous minutiae to half-baked hyperbole, as if the authors were suddenly taking an interest in what they were saying. They are lavish in their praise as they tread the fine line between double-entendre and forthright fungal fact,” (Arora, 1986, 766–767). And yet surely there’s some justification for such overblown rhetoric when speaking about stinkhorns. Their physical resemblance to tumescent, bruised genitalia or pus-filled buboes, for example. Their vivid (livid?) colouration of weeping, fleshy openings that recall necrotic wounds smeared with faeces. The sight and sound of swarms of flying insects that feed hungrily off their powerfully scented slime, a scent that is efficiently, if not reductively, described as “stink”.  

Smells

The lack of language used to describe scent might explain why in the history of scientific classification of stinkhorns in the order of Phallales botanists have made more reference to their phallic form rather than their fetid smell. And yet there’s no doubt, stinkhorns look like pricks.

Figure 1. A dune stinkhorn Phallus hadriani. The mushroom is easily discernible from other species of stinkhorn by its pinkish volva from which the fungus sprouts forth. (Photograph by Siôn Parkinson, 2022.)

The stinkhorn mushroom first emerges from the earth as buff, leathery-skinned gelatinous sac colloquially known as a “witch’s egg” from which bursts a long, gently curving shaft or “stipe”. This event happens with such force that it’s been calculated that an erupting stinkhorn is capable of lifting over 130 kilos, a weight equivalent to that of an average western lowland gorilla. Stinkhorn mushrooms have been known to break through roads and pavements like miniature pneumatic drills (Niksic et al., 2004, 21–22). Seemingly incongruous with this Herculean strength, the stipe of the mature stinkhorn feels extremely brittle, which is hollow, crumbles easily between one’s fingers, and is finely perforated with a texture similar to prawn or animal-skin crackers. Loosely attached to its tip is a conical cap or “glans”, a shape which, as its name suggests, is similar to the bell-end of a human penis. The cap is completed by a small, round hole like a urethral orifice. Early botanists erroneously believed it was through this hole that the mushroom ejected its foul odour. As Junius writes in his early dissertation on the mushroom, “Its highest point … possesses an opening, whence issues a powerful exhalation,” (1564, translation by Caroline Spearing, 2021). Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius was closer to the truth when, writing forty years later, he observed that the smell came from a brownish substance that developed over the cap itself: “The reeking cap of the mushroom is shaped like a helmet similar to the nut-like tip of the penis. The cap is first white in colour becoming brown with age at which time it emits a fetid odour (Clusisus, 1601, 295, translation mine). Clusius’ chronology of the mushroom’s development is not quite right, however. When it first emerges from its egg, the smooth cap of the mushroom is covered in an olivaceous gel which quickly darkens as it deliquesces, turning white only after swarms of insects have devoured its slimy surface, thus deodorizing it. It is this sticky, greenish-brown substance, called the “gleba”, from which the stink of the stinkhorn emanates. The word gleba is used in mycology to describe internally produced spores of gasteroid (“stomach-like”) fungi, such as stinkhorns, puffballs, and earthballs. Gleba means “clod” or “lump of earth”, an appropriate term for the dirt-coloured goop that binds the spore mass to the mushroom’s tip. 

The lifecycle of the stinkhorn fungus is fleeting, appearing and disappearing at a speed practically visible to the naked eye. The mushroom becomes fully erect in a matter of hours and its slimy cap is denuded in far less time revealing a pale skin beneath, chequered by a series of honeycomb indentations similar to the texture of tripe (the word mycologist use to describe this texture is reticulated meaning “net-like”). Thereafter the mushroom becomes flaccid, falling to the forest floor where it rots and is reabsorbed into the earth.

In 2014, a group of chemists at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague measured the different compounds the stinkhorn emits at various stages in its lifecycle (Pudil et al., 2014, 167–68). A technique called gas chromatography and mass spectrometry olfactometry (GC-MS-O) effectively affords scientists an electronic nose to analyse the different odorants a solid material releases into the air. It’s these volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that allow a thing to be smelled. What makes the stinkhorn stink, then, is a group of particularly pungent VOCs called oligosulphides. The principal offender is the compound dimethyl trisulfide. According to the website The Good Scents Company, the odour of dimethyl trisulfide is like “cabbage, raw onions, meaty, fishy, creamy with savoury nuances” (Good Scents Company, n.d.). Along with the crudely-named cadaverine (“dead animal”, “human sperm”) and putrescine (“rotting fish”, “human milk”), oligosulphides are the compounds most responsible for the sulphuric, cabbage-like stench of a rotting corpse. It’s this scent that the stinkhorn uses to convince flies into thinking its sporacious slime is in fact carrion or carnivore faeces.
Places

As Aunty Etty or any seasoned mushroom forager will tell you, the stink of the stinkhorn comes first, the sight second. And though it’s not always easy to put into words, we all know this smell, know it intuitively, recalling it somewhere deep within our bodies. The stink of the stinkhorn is a primordial smell, the ur-smell, the smell of rot. Moreover, it’s a smell forewarned by the sound of humming, a word which in British English means both a continuous sound and an unpleasant smell. 

Stinkhorns can often be found growing in clusters around the entrances to badger setts. A study from 1997 speculated that this stinkhorn-badger association could be attributed to a high population of blowflies during the period when stinkhorn fungi begin to fruit, a time which coincides with high rates of birth—and therefore death—of badger cubs below ground (Sleeman et al., 1997, 990). The growth of stinkhorns in forests and coastal regions where the occurrence of decaying animal carcasses is more common therefore helps constitutes a rich ecology of insect-fungi-mammal interrelationship, one that begins and ends with stink. This makes sense when the stink of the stinkhorn is experienced en plein air, so to speak, around the openings to setts and burrows. When relocated to a more confined space such as one’s study or kitchen table (as I did for the purposes of photographing specimens of P. impudics and hadriani, images of which appear alongside this article) the stench quickly becomes intolerable, teasing out flies from behind walls and beneath floorboards. As Junius observed, removed from its original environment in nature to the interior of the human habitat the stinkhorn “exhales an aura so virulent as to be able to pervade the air of an entire room.”

Figure 2. Illustration of the dune stinkhorn Phallus hadriani showing the ripe fungus (right) anatomised into shaft [scapus], glans, and volva, and (left) the complete mushroom. (Woodcut illustration by Maarten van Heemskerck.In Phalli ex fungorum genere in Hollandiae sabuletis passim crescentis descriptio, et ad viuum expressa pictura. By Hadrianus Junius. Delft: H. Schinckelius, 1564.)
Practices

Despite these noxious and nauseating effects, humans have still been tempted to eat parts, or all, of the stinkhorn mushroom at various stages in its growth. In France and Germany, for example, the immature stinkhorn egg is often eaten when the smell is less pronounced. The taste is said to be “radish-like” (Schaechter, 1998, 172). You don’t have to go hunting yourself to savour these mycogastronomic delights. From the comfort of your own home you can order from Amazon one-hundred-gram bags of dried bridal veil stinkhorns Phallus indusiatus to lend your stews an earthy flavour (rinsed of their slime, their fruity-faecal odour is not dissimilar to chipotle chillies). 

Alongside these few culinary examples, microbiologist Elio Schaechter describes other therapeutic applications of stinkhorns, such as ingesting the mushroom to treat epilepsy, or using stinkhorn mucilage as a palliative for gout and rheumatism (Schaechter, 1997, 5–8). There’s evidence that belief in the latter continued well into the twentieth century. For example, while on a foray for “phalloids” in Michigan in the 1950s, mycologist Alexander Smith relays an encounter with an elderly man noticeable first by his smell. From under his cap the man revealed a fresh specimen of the netted stinkhorn Phallus duplicatus. The man explained that he kept the wilting fungus there as a talisman to ease his rheumatism, though Smith points out that “the species has no properties to effect such a cure” (Smith, 1951, 35–36). More likely than the mushroom healing the man, the man was helping the mushroom by tramping through the forest and spreading its spores. In spite of its malodour, it is extraordinary how this phallic mushroom has so compelled humans, like other animals, to do its bidding. Its shape, much as its smelly and slimy qualities, surely has a lot to do with this. Unsurprisingly, another use of the stinkhorn reported in folk history is its addition to “aphrodisiac potions for both man and beast” to aid erectile dysfunction (Schaechter, 1998, 170). 

Figure 3. Two ripe specimens of dune stinkhorns discovered growing in north east coast of Scotland. Shown here arranged in a fashion after van Heemskerck’s original illustration. (Photograph, Siôn Parkinson, 2022).
Feelings and Noses

In their book The Romance of the Fungus World, Rolfe and Rolfe describe the odour of stinkhorns as “intolerable”, “evil-smelling”, “fetid” (Rolfe and Rolfe, 1925, 25–25; 263). W.P.K. Findlay pronounces them as “abominable”, resembling “that of a fox” or “defective drains” (Findlay, 1982, 52). Phillips says their smell is “strong, sickly, offensive […] reminiscent of rotting meat” (Phillips, 2006, 338). Stinkhorn odour is so powerfully diffusive that it has been said a “bitch in heat” can pick up its scent from up to three miles away (Phillips, 2019). In olfactory terms, the space a single stinkhorn occupies above ground is enormous (see Johnson and Jürgens, 2010). 

Figure 4. Dune stinkhorn photographed on the epigraph page torn from a copy of the novel At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien. (Photograph by Siôn Parkinson, 2021.)

“Scent is used for a few mushrooms as a reliable field identification aid,” the mushroom expert and author Roger Phillips once told me (2019). “Some of them have a spermatic scent, others have a fruity scent. Some mealy, some fishy. Smell is very difficult to describe except by comparison. Sometimes a mushroom just smells like a mushroom.” In observing the qualities of smell rather than the sight of a thing in nature, the mycologist is afforded a rare opportunity to deviate from the rigidity of the tradition of scientific nomenclature. Nature writer Richard Mabey appears to agree with this statement. In his book The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn (published in 2011), Mabey observes that “smells, unlike sights, are hard to describe. They inhabit an evocative, ephemeral space in our imaginations that is difficult to put into words. They can only be described by comparison with other smells. To be fixed in our imaginations they need to be attached to other memories—of place, moment, feeling—and that needs the experience of age,” (Mabey, 2011, 59–60). This attachment of one smell to another as a means of explication means that the language of smell can often become laborious, however, relying on a chain of multiple smell encounters that move beyond one’s own autobiographical connotations to a collective experience potentially stretching back generations.

The stinkhorn lifecycle relies upon flies to disperse its spores. The synthesised stench of decaying flesh and dung in the air causes insect antennae to twitch, luring flies with the promise of food or a potential brood site in which to lay their eggs. A study from 2005 found that in the right conditions carrion flies can detect the smell of rotting meat from several kilometres away (Nazni Wasi et al., 2005, 53–54). By some evolutionary quirk it shares with other sapromyophilic plants (odoriferous plants pollinated by carrion flies), such as the stinking corpse lily Rafflesia arnoldii, the dead horse or arum lily Helicodiceros muscivorus, or the titan arum lily Amorphophallus titanumarum, the stinkhorn fungus has managed to become attuned to this phenomenon thus ensuring its place on Earth. (Note, the link between lilies and the scent of death is the odorant indole. The origin of the association of lilies with funeral parlours was functional rather than decorative, as the indolic scent of the flowers’ stamens would help mask the smell of cadavers stored out the back; see Ayers, 2017). 

Flies found feeding off stinkhorn slime are predominantly the species Polietes lardaria, Phaonia subventa, blowflies Lucilia Caesar, Lucilia sericata, Calliphora vicina and the bluebottle Calliphora vomitoria (Sleeman et al., 1996, 986). The Latin name for latter is ironic. Calliphora means “bearer of beauty”, named, no doubt, for the brilliant metallic blue of the insect’s abdomen; whereas vomitoria could mean either an emetic—something that provokes vomiting—or, alternatively, a place where one is sick, such as the vomitoria of the ancient Romans where during feasts they would (allegedly) make themselves throw up to allow them to devour more food, hence the meaning of vomitorium as a passageway in the amphitheatre where people would “spew forth”. The scientific name for the bluebottle is thus descriptive of both how it looks and how it eats, regurgitating its food before devouring it again. The sight of a swarm of feeding Calliphora vomitoria, so their name implies, is beautiful enough that it makes one want to puke.

Instead of a protein-rich animal corpse, flies find in the ripe stinkhorn a sweet, sticky slime which they feed off frenziedly. The flies then carry off particles of spore-rich slime to other parts of the forest on their limbs. (It’s been claimed that a single speck of stinkhorn slime on the hair of a fly may contain twenty million spores) and in their faeces [Findlay, 1982, 52]). Stinkhorn slime has a laxative effect on flies meaning spore dispersal occurs near the mushroom, therefore increasing the fungus’ chance of growth in similarly rich soil (Sleeman et al., 1996, 989–90). It’s not unusual to find in just one spot several stinkhorns in various states of engorgement poking up through the soil like the pricks of dead men (another folk name for the stinkhorn: “Deadman’s cock”).

Stink is relative. To the flesh- or shit-eating fly, stink is the promise of food and fecundity. 

To humans, stink is a signifier of death and disease. In his book Smells, Robert Muchembled argues that this has always been the case, dismissing the idea that in “days of yore” folk must have been more used to, and therefore inured to the pervasive stench of the towns and countryside (Muchembled, 2020, 16–17). Muchembled: “In every culture, negative signals received by the brain are associated with death, warning the body of the risk of harm. […] No human society is indifferent to smells” (Ibid). 

Indeed, sometimes we actively seek out bad smells for our sport. In her childhood memoir Period Piece (published in 1953), Gwen Raverat, an English artist and great granddaughter of Charles Darwin, recollects a curious ritual carried out every summer by her formidable Henrietta “Aunt Etty” Lichfield who, with her “little monkey hands”, would gather basketfuls of stinkhorns protruding from a wood at the end of Burrow’s Hill in the village of Gomshall, Surrey (Raverat, 1953, 121). Raverat: “In our native woods there grows a kind of toadstool, called in the vernacular The Stinkhorn, though in Latin it bears a grosser name. The name is justified, for the fungus can be hunted by scent alone; and this was Aunt Etty’s great invention. Armed with a basket and pointed stick, and wearing a special hunting cloak and gloves, she would sniff her way round the wood, pausing here and there, her nostrils twitching, when she caught a whiff of her prey; then at last, with deadly pounce, she would fall upon her victim, and poke his putrid carcase into her basket. At the end of the day’s sport, the catch was brought back and burnt in the deepest secrecy on the drawing-room fire, with the door locked; because of the moral of the maids,” (Ibid, 135–136, italics in the original). For one so perennially tormented by the potency of fresh stinkhorns, one can only imagine the foetor Aunt Etty encountered in the closed confines of the drawing room as bundles of fleshy phalluses sweated and sizzled on the fire.

There are some mushrooms, writes British mycologist M.C. Cooke, whose smells “once inhaled are never to be forgotten” (Cooke, 1875, 116). Cooke includes in this list the common stinkhorn Phallus impudicus, a stench, he writes, which is much more intensified in the Clathrus or red cage stinkhorn: “It is very probable that, after all, the odour of the Phallus would not be so unpleasant if it were not so strong. It is difficult to imagine, when one encounters a slight sniff borne on a passing breeze, that there is the element of something not by any means unpleasant about the odour when so diluted; yet it must be confessed that when carried in a vasculum, in a close carriage, or railway car, or exposed in a close room, there is no scruple about pronouncing the odour intensely fetid. The experience of more than one artist, who has attempted the delineating of the Clathrus from the life, is to the effect that the odour is unbearable even by an enthusiastic artist determined on making a sketch” (Ibid, 116).

That attempts by artists to depict stinkhorns from life have been stymied by the sheer strength of their stench is something to which I can testify. It must be done fast and in short bursts so as to draw breath, and using multiple specimens which must soon after be thrown away, wrapped in several sheets of paper, double-bagged, and disposed of at a distance from one’s home (rather than burned in the drawing-room fire). In this haste, something essential about the mushroom is lost, however. As Cooke suggests, it’s because of the intensity of their odour that stinkhorns seem to resist true, that is, total artistic representation. 

Figure 5. Pungent and extremely diffusive stinkhorn slime smeared on torn endpaper. (Photograph by Siôn Parkinson, 2021.)

The sight of the stinkhorn has captivated male (for they were mostly male) botanists ever since it was first described by Pliny the Elder in his encyclopaedic Natural History. A hundred years after the Natural History was first published in Europe, Dutch physician and botanist Adriaan de Jonghe, better known as Hadrianus Junius, produced a sixteen-page pamphlet describing a single species of mushroom in prose, poetry and illustration. The pamphlet features a wonderful wood-cut of the mushroom by Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck (1498–1574) articulating it into its constituent parts. Junius’ anatomical description together with Heemskerck’s illustration presented to the public for the first time an autopsy (literally “the act of seeing with one’s own eyes”) of a mushroom. 

It’s hardly surprising that the author of the first ever publication about a single species of mushroom chose for his subject the stinkhorn. For to gaze upon the stinkhorn is to witness nature at its most brazen. Junius called his mushroom “Phallus” on account of its resemblance to the tumescent cock of the Greek ithyphallic demigod Priapus. It was later classified as Phallus hadriani in homage to Junius (the Latin name literally translates as “Adriaan’s phallus”). English herbalist John Gerard (1633) called it the “Pricke mushroom”. John Parkinson (1640), the “Hollanders Workingtoole”. However, in the history of scientific classification, none of the Latin epithets ascribed to any species of Phallus reference the fact that they stink. Instead, all refer to their resemblance to an erect human penis. The name for the common stinkhorn Phallus impudicus given to it by Linnaeus in 1753 means “impudent” or “shameless phallus”. The scientific name for the beautifully veiled bamboo fungus Phallus indusiatus means, weirdly, “phallus with an undergarment”. Phallus atrovolvatus is more generous to gender. Described as new to science in 2005, P. atrovolvatus translates as “phallus with a blackened womb” on account of the gloomy colour of the egg from which the mature mushroom pricks up. But this is a rare deviation from a largely phallocentric tradition of naming. 

The prioritising of sight over smell in the classification of stinkhorns is at odds with the colloquial names Europeans have for them. For example, in Germany and Russia, Phallus impudicus is known as the “stinky morel”, a reference to the mushroom’s likeness to the morel’s brain-like cap. In Czech it’s the “stink snake”. In Bulgaria, the “stinking sponge”. In Bosnia it’s known as the “stinking singer” (my favourite). The French call it le satyre puant, the “stinking satyr”, a name that captures both the sight and smell of the mushroom with the classical allusion early naturalists so enjoyed. And yet to focus on the phallus is to ignore the function of the stinkhorn, its raison d'être. That is, to stink. 

*A version of this text was published in the journal The Mushroom, December 2021.
Creator:
Siôn Parkinson
Citation:
Siôn Parkinson, “Stinkhorn Mushroom,” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed April 21, 2024, https://encyclopedia.odeuropa.eu/items/show/17.
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