Major Groups > Stinkhorns



[ Basidiomycota > Agaricomycetes > Phallales . . . ]

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:

  • Some part of the fruiting body, at some stage in development, is covered with a foul-smelling slime.
  • The fruiting body arises from an "egg," traces of which may disappear by maturity.

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, woodchips, 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?" emails 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).

Identifying stinkhorns is usually a matter of paying close attention to physical features; microscope work is rarely involved. "Phalloid" species have a well-developed stem and a clearly separated, simple cap structure, while "mutinoid" species have well-developed stems that lack a separated head (although there is an apical portion covered with spore slime, sometimes giving the appearance of a cap, the slime adheres to the stem itself). "Clathroid" species are funky things featuring arms or lattices without a well-developed stem. Lastly, "lysuroid" species seem to combine phalloid and clathroid structures; they have well-developed stems but, at the apex, the head structure features separated arms, claws, or a lattice.


Lysurus species 01
Lysurus species 01

Phallus ravenelii
Phallus ravenelii

Clathrus ruber
Clathrus ruber

Mutinus elegans
Mutinus elegans

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 hirudinosus, Colus pusillus, Ileodictyon cibarium, Ileodictyon gracile, Lysurus corallocephalus, Lysurus gardneri, Lysurus periphragmoides, Mutinus species 01, Phallus aurantiacus, Phallus cinnabarinus, and 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.

1.Spore slime occurring in a band (reminiscent of a napkin ring) near the top of a white cylinder with Swiss-cheese-like holes; subtropical to tropical.

1.Not completely as above.

2.Stinkhorn mutinoid—spore slime occurring in a zone near the top of a well-developed stem, but not on a structurally differentiated head.

2.Stinkhorn not mutinoid.

3.Fresh, unfaded stem white, without orange, red, or pink shades.

3.Fresh stem with orange, pink, or red shades.

4.Distributed in the tropics (in North America, known only from Florida and Mexico); zone of spore slime comprising one-half to two-thirds of the stem; stem surface under the spore slime dark red; apex of stinkhorn often naked and perforated; stinkhorn long and skinny.

4.Variously distributed; zone of spore slime generally up to one-half the length of the stem; colors, apex, and stature varying.

5.Fresh, unfaded stem a shade of orange; eggs and volva usually whitish with lilac shades; zone of spore slime often only vaguely defined at the bottom; mature stinkhorn often (but not always) long and gradually tapered to a point.

5.Fresh, unfaded stem pink to red; eggs and volva whitish to faintly yellowish, without lilac shades; zone of spore slime often (but not always) terminating in a clearly defined line; mature stinkhorn usually more truncated than above.

6.Stinkhorn phalloid—spore slime occurring on a clearly separated, head-like structure that tops a well-developed stem; head structure simple, without arms, claws, or a lattice.

6.Stinkhorn not phalloid.

7.Mature stinkhorn with a netted "skirt" (reminiscent of a doily on your grandmother's coffee table) hanging down from the cap.

7.Mature stinkhorn lacking a "skirt."

8.Skirt 3–6 cm long, not extending to the ground, with fairly small holes and thick dissepiments; appearing in the Midwest and eastern North America, southward into Mexico.

8.Skirt longer than above, often extending nearly to the ground—and more graceful, with large holes and narrower dissepiments; appearing in the southern provinces of Mexico.

9.Fresh, mature stinkhorn with a red, pink, or orange stem.

9.Fresh, mature stinkhorn with a whitish stem.

10.Stem red to pink, up to 2.5 cm thick; distributed from the southeastern states to Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado.

10.Stem orange, under 2 cm thick; fairly widely distributed in the United States but most common in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states.

11.Growing directly from rotting logs in tropical locations; very tiny (usually under 1.5 cm tall when mature); egg and volva yellow-brown.
Xylophallus xylogenus

11.Growing terrestrially (very rarely from rotting logs) in temperate or subtropical locations; usually at least 10 cm high when mature; egg and volva usually whitish to purplish but occasionally slightly brownish.

12.Apex of stinkhorn usually topped with a patch of whitish material (a "calyptra"); surface of the head appearing coarsely granular (the spore slime is embedded in folds of tissue); distributed in Texas and the southwestern United States; probably to be expected in Mexico.

12.Apex without a consistent calyptra (but, rarely, with a small patch of volval tissue); surface of head either pocketed-reticulate, smooth, or very finely (not coarsely) granular; variously distributed.

13.Cap smooth or finely granular beneath the spore slime; found east of the Rocky Mountains.

13.Cap pitted and ridged beneath the spore slime; eastern or western in distribution.

14.Stinkhorn with a well-developed stem topped by 5 or more pairs of thin, red to pink tentacles; spore slime covering the tentacles but not extending to their tips; tropical and subtropical, extending into Georgia and the Carolinas.

14.Stinkhorn not completely as above.

15.Stinkhorn lysuroid—with a well-developed stem and a head that features separated arms, claws, or a lattice.

15.Stinkhorn clathroid—without a well-developed stem (although some species have short, rudimentary stems); featuring a lattice, or separated arms which may or may not be fused at the top and/or bottom of the stinkhorn.

16.Stem with four to six well-defined sides.

16.Stem more or less round in cross-section.

17.Stem holding aloft a cross-latticed ball.
Lysurus species 01
(née "periphragmoides")

17.Stem branching into short vertical arms, appearing like thick claws that often separate and fold back with maturity.

18.Fresh, unfaded stinkhorn white or cream colored (except for the brown spore slime), composed of columns/arms that arise from the volva and are joined at the top of the stinkhorn.

18.Fresh, unfaded stinkhorn red, pink, orange, or yellow; structure varying (columnar or not).

19.Stinkhorn fairly large (usually more than 10 cm tall at maturity); columns without grooves on the outer sides; known from Brazil to Texas.

19.Stinkhorn usually smaller than above; columns grooved; known from Mexico.

20.Columns of more or less even width from base to apex.
Blumenavia heroica

20.Columns narrowing to the apex.
Blumenavia toribiotalpaensis

21.Stinkhorn consisting of a cage-like structure, with horizontal cross-lattices (at least near the top of the structure) in addition to vertical lattices.

21.Stinkhorn without horizontal cross-lattices, consisting only of vertical columns which may or may not be fused at their tips—and which may or may not peel back at maturity to appear like the arms of an octopus or squid.

22.Cross-lattices only occurring at the top of the stinkhorn, held aloft by 4–6 vertical columns which are often fused together into a stemlike structure; reported from Jamaica.

22.Cross-lattices not restricted to the top of the stinkhorn; variously distributed.

23.Appearing in Florida and along the Gulf Coast, into Mexico; holes in the cage surrounded by "coronas" (photo); spores up to 4 µm long.

23.Appearing on the West Coast, or in Mexico, or in the Caribbean; holes lacking coronas; spores 4–6 µm long.

24.Stinkhorn a red to orangish cage-like structure arising from a whitish egg; growing in California (especially in the Bay Area) and Mexico.

24.Stinkhorn a white cage-like structure arising from a purplish egg; known from the Caribbean.
Clathrus roseovolvatus

25.Spore slime borne only on a structure (a "glebifer") that hangs at the top of the stinkhorn, under the arches formed by vertical columns which are fused at their tips.

25.Spore slime not limited to an apical glebifer.

26.Columns crested with fringed or scalloped edges.

26.Columns not crested.

27.Spore slime confined to the upper portion of the interior surfaces of the columns (rarely lower than the top half).

27.Spore slime covering the entire interior surfaces of the columns, from top to bottom.

28.Stinkhorn with 2–5 columns up to 15 cm tall; reddish to orangish; occasionally with a cross-lattice or two; distributed from New York to the Gulf States, Illinois, and Mexico; especially common in Florida.

28.Stinkhorn with 2 columns up to 9 cm tall; orangish or yellowish; without cross-lattices; recorded from California.
Clathrus bicolumnatus

29.Arms numbering 4–7, usually separating and peeling back almost to the ground by maturity; documented from California.

29.Arms numbering 3–4, remaining fused at the apex; documented east of the Rocky Mountains.


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