Your nose may detect stinkhorns in the vicinity even before you spot them.
These fetid-smelling fungi can pop up seemingly overnight in moist woody areas and gardens, especially if you use woodchip mulch.
Along with Portobello mushrooms, yeast, bread mold, puffballs, truffles, and other fungi, stinkhorns lack chlorophyll and don’t produce their own food by photosynthesis. They also don’t produce flowers, seeds, or fruits. Many fungi have complex life-cycles.
Estimates of fungal diversity worldwide vary greatly, but there could be over a million species, maybe more.
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Among stinkhorns alone, there are some 77 different kinds, found particularly in the tropics. Most not only smell like dung or carrion but also assume arresting, unforgettable forms. Some are said to have an octopus-like or phallic appearance, or to resemble lattice-like masses. Many species are brightly colored.
The conspicuous, spore-producing portion of a stinkhorn develops from an egg-shaped base that’s partially buried in the ground. In the column stinkhorn (Clathrus columnatus), a common species, the “egg” gives rise to a vivid orange structure consisting of several curved, spreading arms joined at the top. The inner surface of the arms is coated with slime that’s nasty-smelling to us but attractive to flies, which help disperse the stinkhorn’s spores.
Though not prized for their looks or their odors, stinkhorns won’t harm your yard. They’re not parasitic, nor do they cause plant disease. None are reported to be poisonous to humans or pets.
In fact, stinkhorns play a vital ecological role in your garden. Like many other fungi, they feed by decomposing dead organic matter in litter and soil. In the process, they re-cycle nutrients, making them available to the roots of our green plants.
Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University,lives on Hilton Head Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.