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Phallus ravenelii: the common stinkhorn, Ravenel’s stinkhorn

THE MUSHROOM

The Stinkhorn is aptly named for the foul odor it exudes and its horn-like shape. The odor can be likened to decaying flesh or feces. Why would anything smell so disgusting? Why, to attract flies which land on the head of the mushroom. Then, spores stick to the legs of the insects and are dispersed by them. That explains the stink. The shape of these mushrooms can’t be explained by modern science.

Stumbling upon this mushroom in the woods for the first time, one may be taken by surprise to find such a phallic thing protruding through the leaf litter, hence the name of the genus and the whole order, the Phallales. Today’s star, Phallus ravenelii, is named in honor of Henry William Ravenel (1814-1887) an important South Carolina mycologist and botanist.

Jars full of stinkhornsAPPEARANCE

The pileus or head of P. ravenelii is covered with a grey/olive-colored slimy spore mass. It is approximately 1–4 cm wide and 3–5 cm high. Atop the head is an open white ring, which some describe as “mouth-like.” The spores are 4 x 1–2 µm, elliptical, smooth, and colorless. The elongated stem is whitish and hollow, with a spongy texture. The whole thing gets to be about 10–15 cm tall. The volva is a gelatinous bulb at the base of the mushroom–light pinkish in color. A mature mushroom lasts only a day or two before subsiding.

ECOLOGY

The mushroom begins as an egg-like structure with an outer covering (peridium) and layered interior that may be multi-colored and gelatinous (a stinkhorn egg is shown on the first page of this blog). The stipe bursts out of the peridium and “mushrooms” to full size in just a few hours (see our amazing time lapse of stinkhorn emergence). Many will not find this malodorous mushroom appetizing, though the immature egg form is a delicacy in some parts of the world. A fun demonstration can be conducted by digging a stinkhorn egg out of the ground and bringing it home. Keep it moist, place it in a jar and watch it become a fully-grown mushroom over a day or so!

Ravenel’s stinkhorn is fairly common in the late summer and early autumn, and is found in North America from Québec to Florida, and west to the Midwestern states. It is a saprobe, often growing on well-rotted wood and commonly found in mulched flower beds. It grows in scattered clusters, commonly in groups of two or three. Because of its smell, many are displeased to find it.

A MUSHROOM OF GREAT INTRIGUE

A tall glass of stinkhornIt is not surprising that many people have found this mushroom to be surprising, amusing, even offensive. Through the combination of its odor and phallic resemblance, it has earned an infamous place in the history of human-mushroom interactions.

Stinkhorns have been connected to witchcraft, disease, and the devil (being called devil’s eggs, “Daimonum ova”). They even come up in very early literature. Pliny the Elder wrote about the in his Natural History, 1st century AD. Also, the first booklet ever written about a specific mushroom was about stinkhorns in Holland, 1564!5

Stinkhorns’ phallic nature has caused a lot of excitement among human-kind; some have even taken them for a sort of aphrodisiac. In his book3, N.P. Money, goes into some detail about how the remarkable resemblance goes beyond just the look! It seems that stinkhorns are comparable with mammalian penises because both “erections” are maintained by pressurized fluid rather than solid tissue. Blood supports a real penis, while the stinkhorn is supported by water through osmotic pressure.

Charles Darwin’s sister daughter Henrietta “Etty” Darwin hated stinkhorn mushrooms with an unusual passion:

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 a pointed stick, and wearing a special hunting cloak and gloves, she would sniff her way through the wood, pausing here and there, her nostrils twitching when she caught a whiff of her prey. Then with a deadly pounce she would fall upon her victim and poke his putrid carcass 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 morals of the maids.

Gwen Raverat, Period Piece (1952)

Is there any other (seemingly) harmless plant or fungi that has caused such great upset?

And finally, perhaps the most amazing discovery I made while perusing stinkhorn literature was a study4 that used mathematical modeling to show that a stinkhorn growing from beneath a paved road can produce the very powerful force of 1.33 kN/m2. Three stinkhorns can lift about 400 kg! Never underestimate the power of mushrooms!

  1. Schaechter, E. 1997. In the Company of Mushrooms. Harvard Univ. Press. Excerpt: What is a stinkhorn? Harvard University Press Website, accessed Oct. 2006.
  2. Milner, Richard. Descent with modification: a great-grandson of Charles Darwin’s opens new vistas into the voyage of the Beagle. Natural History, April, 2005
  3. Money, Nicholas P. 2002. Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard: The mysterious world of mushrooms, molds, and mycologists. Oxford University Press.
  4. Niksic, M., Hadzic I., and M. Glisic. 2004. Is Phallus impudicus a mycological giant?
    Mycologist 18: 21-22.
  5. E. Schaechter & Wilson, N. A mycological voice from the past. [online translation of Hadrianus Junius' 1564 work on Phallus hadrianii]. Accessed Dec 2006.
  6. Wong, G. University of Hawaii at Manoa. Botany 135 website (accessed Oct. 2006).

Photos by the author.

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About

Most people don't pay much attention to fungi, which include things like mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and mildews. Here at Cornell we think they're pretty fascinating. In fact, even the most disgusting foot diseases and moldy strawberries are dear to our hearts. We'd like to talk to you about fungi, so that like us, you too can tell gross stories at the dinner table. Afterwards, maybe you'll notice some things you would have overlooked before, and we think this could be good for the planet.

Kathie T. Hodge, Editor

Beneath Notice, our book of borescopic mycology.

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