Stinkhorn mushrooms are a fascinating, albeit a smelly, group of fungi. They aren’t exactly a mushroom that goes unnoticed. In this complete guide, we’ll cover everything from their unique appearance and odor to where you can find them and how they grow. We’ll touch on some of the different varieties, and any potential health benefits or risks associated with consuming them.
If you go by name alone, stinkhorn mushrooms leave little to the imagination. And like other mushrooms, stinkhorn mushrooms are essential to the ecosystem. We’ll cover some of the unique varieties in a moment; for now, we will stick with some of the basics.
Stinkhorn mushrooms, sometimes called common stinkhorn (phallus impudicus), have a distinctive appearance—their scientific name is a clue in identifying them— and smell, which can be nauseating to some people. The characteristic scent of a stinkhorn is sometimes compared to the smell of rotting flesh, carrion, or some other foul odor. Occasionally, it has been described as having a similar scent to feces or dung. On the flip side, their pungent scent can be quite alluring to the right demographic.
Once a stinkhorn mushroom matures and is ready to reproduce, the cap will start secreting a gel called gleba. This substance is not only responsible for the stinkhorn mushroom’s noticeable odor, but it’s also what attracts the flies and insect pollinators these mushrooms rely on for reproduction. When they land or feed on the mushroom, they pick up these sticky spores on their bodies and spread them to new locations.
While many mushrooms release their spores during rain showers or with a breeze, stinkhorn spores, in all their foul-smelling glory, need Mother Nature to lend a hand in a slightly different way. Their unique reproductive patterns make them a hot topic in mycology.
When fully grown, a mature stinkhorn can range from just a few centimeters to over 25 centimeters. And they can vary in color; stinkhorn mushrooms can be anywhere from a pale white to a bright orange or even black. They can look quite different from each other as well. Some species feature slimy, gooey caps while others have more pronounced stems—they’re known for their unusual and bizarre shapes, which can look like phalluses, hence being part of the Phallaceae family of mushrooms. These shapes can be pretty striking and often play a key role in the mushroom’s reproduction. Each species of stinkhorn mushroom has its unique physical features. Still, all species of stinkhorns have their characteristic scent in common (1).
Stinkhorn mushrooms typically grow on the ground, often in mulch or decaying wood. Depending on where you live, you may find more than a few growing in your garden mulch (2).
Psst: Did you know there’s a name for mushrooms that don’t release their spores in the wind? Known as gasteromycetes (stomach fungi) or sequestrate fungi (because they sequester their spores), these types of mushrooms have an atypical way of reproducing and often rely on external organisms to help them get the job done (2). Stinkhorn mushrooms are one of four major groups of gasteromycetes. Others include Puffballs, Bird’s Nest Fungi, and False Truffles (3).
There are several different varieties of stinkhorn mushrooms, and while you’re much more likely to smell these fungi before you see them, their appearance can be strange and beautiful. Stinkhorn mushrooms vary in size, color, and shape. A fruiting body may be white in one variety and olive brown in the next. Some are tan, yellow, or orange, or have red stalks (4). Occasionally, they can look downright alien and not at all related to the same family—for example, the red octopus stinkhorn, also known as devil’s fingers. Stinkhorns’ taxonomic name is Phallales, which references their phallic appearance, and their common name is straightforward—it’s a combination of the stink they emit and the horn-shaped appearance they generally have (2).
Here are some varieties of stinkhorn mushrooms you may come across:
Psst: Some stinkhorn mushrooms have a volva, a whitish sack at the base of their stem. Other mushrooms have them as well. The presence or absence of a volva can sometimes be an important marker in identifying particular mushrooms. This is particularly critical since some poisonous mushrooms have distinct volvas. It’s always a good idea to brush up on your mushroom anatomy.
Stinkhorn mushrooms have been used in folk medicine for centuries by different cultures around the world. Ancient Chinese may have used stinkhorn mushrooms to treat tumors, while Romans turned the stinkhorn mushroom into a sort of love potion to increase vitality. Europeans turn to stinkhorns to alleviate skin issues and trouble with internal organs (5).
Their unique shape has garnered more than a few comments in the history books. English botanist and herbalist John Gerard referred to stinkhorn mushrooms as the “prike mushroom” in his 1597 publication Generall Historie of Plantes, one of the most widely circulated books on the subject at the time (6). In her 1952 memoir, Charles Darwin’s granddaughter comments on how her Aunt Hetty would secretly collect stinkhorn mushrooms and burn them to “protect the morals of the maids” (1).
These are mushrooms that make an impression, whether by sight or scent.
Most all species of stinkhorn mushrooms are non-toxic, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all edible. For example, the eastern North American stinkhorn (phallus ravenelii) isn’t something you’d want at the dinner table. If you’re going to dine on stinkhorn fungus, it’s considered most appropriate to do so during the egg stage. You might also hear stinkhorn eggs referred to as “witch’s eggs.”
Stinkhorn mushrooms in their egg stage aren’t nearly as offensive smelling as they are later in maturation.
A stinkhorn egg will have a colored spore mass and be covered in a sac with a viscous coating underneath that protects the mushroom (7). This inner layer can be cut out and eaten raw or cooked, with a reportedly unexpected radish or water chestnut-like taste. Depending on the region, stinkhorn eggs may be pickled, used in sausage, or ground into a powder and used as an aphrodisiac for cattle (1).
Because stinkhorns are only considered edible during a particular window in their lifecycle, and even still, aren’t commonly consumed, there needs to be more information regarding any health benefits. And while they likely have comparable health benefits to other types of mushrooms, studies are necessary to offer definitive answers.
Psst: Even though most stinkhorn mushrooms are not poisonous, they can be easily confused for amanita eggs during the egg stage. Amanita muscaria (also known as fly agaric), while hallucinogenic, is also poisonous and can be deadly in some circumstances, so this is one mixup you definitely don’t want to make (8). The best way to tell them apart is to cut them in half and see what’s on the inside. Once you know what a stinkhorn egg looks like, you can tell them apart from amanita eggs (7).
Stinkhorn mushrooms grow in various parts of the world in tropical and temperate climates. Expect to find them in New Zealand, Costa Rica, China, and other parts of Asia, Europe, and North America. Wherever they are, they generally prefer woodland habitats, although some enjoy sand dunes (1).
You may not need to hike through a forest or hop on a plane to find stinkhorn mushrooms. Believe it or not, they may be as close as your backyard. Home gardens, particularly those with wood chips or mulch, make happy homes for stinkhorn mushrooms.
Suppose you’re curious about harvesting wild plants and fungi, like stinkhorns. In that case, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the differences between foraging and wildcrafting. While the terms are often used interchangeably and may seem similar, there are subtle but significant differences.
Foraging is a popular term used to describe collecting wild food resources found in nature. Wildcrafting, on the other hand, is more nuanced and refers to harvesting local resources for medicinal needs. An important aspect of ethical wildcrafting involves doing so sustainably and considering the impact that it has on the ecosystem. In short, while both are a fun way to connect with nature, one has considerably more emphasis on maintaining the integrity of the environment.
Irresponsible harvesting practices can damage an area’s local flora and fauna (we aren’t the only ones who enjoy nibbling on mushrooms). It pays dividends to learn which plants are safe to harvest and how to do so without harming the plant’s long-term health. For example, if you aren’t mindful of how you gather your mushrooms, you could damage the mycelium. Mushrooms use these mycelial networks to communicate, warn each other of danger, and respond to the environment around them.
Another aspect of responsible and ethical wildcrafting is doing your due diligence in only harvesting from areas where it’s legal to do so and obtaining any necessary permits or permissions if required in your area.
Learn about what grows in your area, what is endangered or is approaching that, and be aware of what is safe to harvest and what isn’t. Plant identification is crucial here, not only for the sake of the local ecosystem, but also for your own personal safety. We recommend consulting a professional if you have any doubts about what you could be gathering.
Being mindful of what ethical wildcrafting is and looks like and how to practice it is one way we can give gratitude for nature’s gifts and ensure we all can continue to gather her resources for years to come.
The magical world of mushrooms is genuinely fascinating, and none more so than the numerous species of phallus mushrooms. With a unique reproductive cycle, distinctive odor, and varied physical appearance, it’s no wonder these mushrooms have captured the attention of mycologists and mushroom enthusiasts alike.
To learn more about other types of mushrooms and get the latest news and discoveries, keep up with us on shroomer.