On Mutinus elegans, a mushroom both naughty and smelly

Mutinus elegans (Montagne) E. Fischer

Usually at least partially submerged in the ground; appearing like a whitish to pinkish or purplish “egg” up to 4 cm high; when sliced, revealing the stinkhorn-to-be encased in a gelatinous substance.

Mutinus. Inspired by a Roman phallic deity. Elegans. A word derived from the Latin word for graceful.

English speakers, unimpressed with the lovely etymological pedigree of the so-named mushroom, gave it colloquial names like the dog stinkhorn and the devil’s dipstick.

Best known as the elegant stinkhorn—a contradiction in terms?—Mutinus elegans claws its way through leaf litter, forest floor debris, mulch, flowerbeds, and lawns like a brightly colored finger. Rare among mushrooms, M. elegans reproduces by getting its spores to piggyback away on insects. To this end, it evolved a failsafe method of attracting flies, bursting from the ground with a tip covered in a brown or olive brown slime that gives off an odor described as “like spoiled meat.”

Not surprisingly, mycologists and books like Mushrooms of the Midwest answer a lot of questions about M. elegans in the summer and fall, when the elegant stinkhorn and its smelly kin trespass in yards and gardens. Yet for people with severe colds or those who go mushrooming in welder’s masks, the stinkhorns provide attractive fungal specimens arrayed in reds, pinks, whites, yellows, and oranges. Once the flies clean off the slime, that is.

The stinkhorns’ place in history connects to the exalted Darwin family. Appalled not by the smell but by the phallic appearance of the stinkhorn species P. Ravelenlii, Charles Darwin’s daughter Etty embarked on a mission perfect for the prudish atmosphere of the Victorian Era:

‘Aunt Etty … armed with a basket and a pointed stick, and wearing a special hunting cloak and gloves,’ would set out in search of the mushrooms. At the end of the day, Aunt Etty ‘burned them in the deepest secrecy on the drawing room fire with the door locked—because of the morals of the maids.’

Photo: Michael Kuo