Posted by Harrison Balisky. Harrison is an avid outdoorsman, and an Environmental Studies major at UVM set to graduate this spring.
What: I was recently hiking through a wooded area on a class retreat; keeping an eye out for mushrooms and anything else I thought was interesting, when I stumbled upon a pinkish-brown pile of what looked like spongy tubes. I quickly looked at it and dismissed it as trash and continued my walk across a large area of damp mulch woodchips under the cover of some old trees. I was just stepping over a log with some shelf mushrooms attached to it when I encountered more of the spongy tube-like objects, this time almost ending in me crushing them under my foot. They were about as long as my pinky I would say, its spongy like stem having an eerie resemblance to a toy Nerf gun dart. Looking around, I suddenly spied it in several places, growing happily among the wood mulch.
This piece was as light as Styrofoam, with a little brown colored top bit, and had a slimy spongy texture feel to it. I took a quick whiff and encountered a smell that was so putrid; I could only describe it as a smell that was between decaying animal dung and flesh. The smell instantly triggered many of my “about-to-vomit” warning signals. It made ginkgo balls, which are those other notoriously foul-smelling natural fruiting bodies, seem quite appealing. I knew then that I had unwittingly grabbed a piece of fungi that was of total mystery to me. Even my buddy, who was with me that is a forestry major, was completely baffled by it. But I knew right then and there who I could ask that would have the answer, my professor of my Natural History of Centennial Woods class, Teage O'Connor. And sure enough before I even showed him a picture I took of it, he could already tell me from my description of it, that it was a Dog Horn mushroom (Mutinus caninus) in the Stink Horn family.
What I have been hearing from most people through my searches is that they don't seem to like Dog Horn, something about the smell. Go figure. But when I first came across the Elegant Stinkhorn, as I described in my experience above, I would soon come to find why some of the other common names for it are Devil's Dipstick, Devil's Horn, Devil's Stinkpot, and Dog Penis. The foul smell of the fungus coupled with its cornucopian shape is what’s appropriately used for the origin of its common name stinkhorn. The
more pejorative names are probably based on its strange appearance. I’m not going to lie about what I really thought when I first saw it. What kind of shroom is that? Along with looking at it and thinking What is this disgusting mushroom that looks like a…Well put it this way it might be inappropriate to say what I thought it looked liked at first but I’m sure you can figure that out. Elegant may be seen in reference to its simplicity, almost artistic simplicity, however suggestive it still may be.
Ecological Notes: According to Simon & Schuster’s guide to Mushrooms, the Dog Stinkhorn grows from a white or pale yellow “egg” and is covered by a decaying slime. What’s not surprising to me is that the edibility of the mushroom is listed as “of no interest”. It also depicts that the slime attracts flies, which pick up the mushroom’s spores and deposit them elsewhere that helps to spread this mushroom around. There's no real polite way of saying it: I think stinkhorns are fairly on the grosser side when it comes to mushrooms, and after smelling it I think I could say their stink is so potent you should be able to smell them before you see them.