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Stinkhorns: The Phallaceae and Clathraceae
by Michael Kuo
Stinkhorns are amazing mushrooms, notorious for popping up suddenly and unexpectedly in urban settings. They are very diverse in appearance, but all of them share at least two features:
Beyond these shared features, however, just about anything goes, and stinkhorns range from looking rather like morels to appearing like, um, a portion of canine anatomy, or odd marine creatures with tentacles, or crab claws, Wiffle balls, Chinese lanterns, and so on.
Stinkhorns occur "naturally" in North America, especially in subtropical and tropical regions--but some stinkhorn fruitings in temperate and north-temperate climates may be caused by human endeavors, resulting from the transportation of soil, sod, wood chips, trees, and so on. Thus Lysurus mokusin appears outside a library in Lawrence, Kansas, and Aseroë rubra shows up in gardens in South Carolina.
The method the stinkhorns use to disperse spores is quite ingenious, though a little disgusting to human sensibilities. The foul-smelling slime is calculated to attract flies and other insects, who land on the slime and gobble it up. Little do the insects know that they have been duped into covering their little insect feet with stinkhorn spores, and have ingested spores into their digestive tracts! Later, these spores are dispersed by the unwitting insects, and the stinkhorn life-cycle continues elsewhere.
One stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus, is often mistaken for a yellow morel by summer morel hunters who are hunting with their hearts instead of their minds. However, the season alone (to say nothing of the presence of stinky slime and the underground "egg") should serve to separate the stinkhorn; morels don't grow in summer . . . and "de Nile" is not just a river in Egypt.
I doubt that any mushrooms, with the possible exception of Leucocoprinus birnbaumii (which pops up out of nowhere in people's flower pots), generate more "What's This Mushroom?" e-mails than the stinkhorns. They are truly astonishing when they grow literally overnight in your yard or garden. So, to anticipate a few questions in advance: No, they won't hurt you (or your children, or your pets); No, I will not tell you how to get rid of them (it's pretty much impossible, but even if they were easily eradicated, why would a mushroom lover tell people how to kill mushrooms?); and Yes, I would love to see your photos (my e-mail address is on this page).
Traditionally, two families of stinkhorns were recognized. The Phallaceae held stinkhorns with unbranched stems, including species of Mutinus, Phallus, and Dictyophora (now synonymized with Phallus), among others. The Clathraceae included stinkhorns with branched stems and those with funky, latticed structures--including Clathrus, Lysurus, Colus, Laternea, and others. Although the current Dictionary of the Fungi contradicts itself on the status of these two stinkhorn families (the entry for the order Phallales includes the Phallaceae but not the Clathraceae, while the entry for the Clathraceae indicates it belongs in the Phallales) it is rather a moot point, since recent DNA research has indicated that the order Phallales also includes many coral mushrooms, species of Gomphus like Gomphus floccosus, and earthstars like Geastrum saccatum.
Key to 30 North American Stinkhorns
Note: Some species from Central America have been included on the assumption that they may range into tropical and subtropical regions of North America. Some non-North American stinkhorns are treated at the site, but not in the key below. They include Clathrus baumii, Clathrus transvaalensis, Colus pusillus, Ileodictyon cibarium, Ileodictyon gracile, Lysurus corallocephalus, Lysurus gardneri, Lysurus periphragmoides, Phallus aurantiacus, Phallus cinnabarinus, Phallus multicolor. It should also be noted that stinkhorns are notorious for appearing where they are not supposed to appear, geographically, since they are easily spread through human endeavors.
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Cite this page as:
Kuo, M. (2011, April). Stinkhorns: Phallaceae and Clathraceae. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/phallaceae.html