Good morning friends!
I was out in the garden the other day helping with weeding, when all of a sudden I smelled something really stinky! Smell is one of my strongest senses, so I followed the scent to the front corner of the garden under the white turtlehead blossoms. There, I discovered these strange, bright orange-pink growths sticking up out of the soil. Each one had 3-4 arms sticking up from the ground, and each arm had an inner surface coated in a sticky, slimy-looking brown goo. Upon closer investigation, the rotten smell seemed to be coming from that slime! I thought they looked like aliens, but my coworkers told me that the strange shapes were actually the fruiting bodies of a fungus called stinky squid.
This species is in a family of fungi called the stinkhorns. They can be found all around the world except for places where it is cold for most of the year. Unfortunately not everybody gets a chance to see them because of how quickly they grow! They can grow as much as 6 inches in an hour, but they also die back just as quickly. Unless you are in the right place at the right time, you are probably going to miss them!
Each stinkhorn starts out as a tiny spore, which sprouts to grow a series of long hyphae (similar to fungal roots). The hyphae feed on dead wood buried under the soil, and over time they grow to form a dense mat called a mycelium. When the mycelium is mature enough, it forms a gelatinous, egg-like shape under the soil. The shape is similar to a snake’s egg, and many people get confused when they accidentally dig them up in their gardens! The egg grows fruiting bodies (mushrooms) that emerge above the soil and develop a sticky spore mass called a gleba.
The gleba smells like rotting meat in order to attract flies and beetles. When the insects crawl around the fungi, they end up with spores stuck to their bodies. As the insects move around, they transport the spores to new locations. This is what allows a fungus without feet to move around! Sometimes the spores also hitch rides on wood chips or garden debris moved by people.
Many people are bothered by the gross smell and scary shapes that seem to pop up overnight, but stinkhorns are actually really good for gardens. As they feed, they break down tough pieces of old wood and release nutrients back into the soil. Those nutrients are then available for other plants to use while growing. I guess all of these stinky squid mean that the turtlehead blossoms will look really nice next year!
Interestingly, the stinky squid was only the first stinkhorn mushroom we found in the garden. Shortly after the squid were gone, another species called an elegant stinkhorn popped up in the same place. I can’t wait to see what fungus species show up next!
Don’t forget to check out the Native Pollinator Garden during your next visit to the park, and be sure to stop in the front room of the Visitor Center to say hi when you do.
Your friendly neighborhood corn snake,