The STINKHORNS Impudent Stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus, left) and Stinky Squid (Pseudocolus fusiformis, right).
I get lots of E-mails from folks who want to know about the "strange-looking stinky mushrooms that keep popping up in our yard/garden." Generally, I can guess before I even look at the digital photo they've sent, for these fungi really smell awful—like rotting meat or something similarly disgusting. Note that under cool, damp conditions, the mushrooms' odor may not be readily apparent—but a good close sniff will eliminate all doubt.
The two species shown above are two of the more common North American species, but there are a number of others. They all have certain things in common—they're very spongy in texture, and they're all partially coated with that smelly layer of green slime that in most species "stinks to high heaven." Indeed, flies are drawn to it like… well, like flies!
Left to right: Netted Stinkhorn(Dictyophora duplicata); Lattice Stinkhorn(Clathrus ruber); and Elegant Dog Stinkhorn(Mutinus elegans).
And that's exactly what Mother Nature intends. You see, the spores are in the slime, and the flies provide free air-express delivery service for those spores to other nitrogen-rich habitats.
At first, they strongly resemble hard-boiled eggs, usually half-buried in soil or humus… on a hot summer day, the stalk pushes out through the top of the "egg" and can grow to a height of up to 8" in just a few hours!
Here's my TIME-LAPSE VIDEO of the rapid growth of the Netted Stinkhorn (Dictyophora duplicata):
Is that cool enough? If not, perhaps you'll get more of a 'kick' from…
The CUP MUSHROOMS Stalked Helvella(Helvella macropus, left) and Tarzetta cupularis (right).
OK, so they're special: "Is that REALLY a MUSHROOM?" They don't look especially glorious unless the color is striking. And there are no noteworthy edibles among them, though they are distant cousins of the delicious morels.
So what's so "cool" about these mushrooms?
Scarlet Cup (Sarcoscypha austriaca, left) and Brown Cup (Peziza praetervisa, right).
Most cup mushrooms respond in a really nifty way to certain stimuli. If direct sunlight very suddenly strikes any one of these cup mushrooms, it will normally pause about two seconds and then "puff" a cloud of spores from the cup. A quick puff of air blown directly at the mushroom will elicit the same pause, and then the same puff of spores.
See this phenomenon for yourself:
Cup mushrooms aren't the only mushrooms that can be seen releasing thousands and thousands of tiny spores so quickly that they are visible to the naked eye. Oyster mushrooms and many of the larger polypores can sometimes be caught sporulating visibly when the sun first hits them, if they're in prime condition for releasing mature spores. Ann "Clint" Clinton Cavanaugh of Boston, Mass., caught this on video in May 2009, in the common species known as Dryad's Saddle(Polyporus squamosus):
Unimpressed? Perhaps you'll better appreciate mushrooms that change color right before your eyes, namely…
The BLUE-STAINING BOLETES Red-pored Bolete(Boletus subvelutipes, left) and Boletus badius (right).
Boletes comprise a large group of cap-and-stalk (umbrella-shaped) mushrooms which lack gills and, instead, have a layer of downward-pointing tubes, in which the spores are produced, beneath the cap. Most boletes are edible, but some—primarily, most of the ones that have an orange to red pore surface, rapidly stain blue when bruised or cut, or both—are 'mildly' poisonous, typically causing mild to severe gastrointestinal upset (cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea).
Because accurately identifying boletes to species is often a very perplexing task, many experienced mushroomers simply avoid the red-pored and/or blue-staining ones and enjoy the rest (excluding those that taste strongly bitter). I can't wholeheartedly endorse this approach, but neither can I offer any good examples of species that might place folks at significant risk… face it, by and large, boletes are a pretty safe group of mushrooms for the table.
But even if they don't make good table fare, the blue-staining boletes are impressive simply by virtue of the way they change color so quickly and dramatically. The best way to observe this showy phenomenon is to slice off part of a fresh specimen and watch.
See for yourself:
Still haven't found your new 'favorite fungal organism'? Then check out these mushrooms that "leak"…
The 'MILKY' MUSHROOMS of Genus Lactarius Yellow-latex Milky(Lactarius vinaceorufescens, left) and Orange-latex Milky(L. deterrimus, right).
That's right: these mushrooms leak when cut! Some species in the genus, such as the Orange-latex Milky(L. deterrimus) shown above, produce only a scant amount of 'latex' but others exude copious amounts of latex when damaged—enough 'milk' to drip, drip, drip like a leaky faucet!
Witness this phenomenon with this video:
A few mushrooms in other genera also produce latex—especially in hot, humid weather. But most of the time, if a mushroom specimen exudes latex from its gills, it's a member of genus Lactarius. The latex may be white, watery white, yellow, orange, red, even blue… and it may change color either immediately after contact with air or more slowly. In the case of the Yellow-latex Milky(L. vinaceorufescens) above, the latex is white but turns yellow within a few seconds.
The Hygrophorus Milky(L. hygrophoroides).
It is also often necessary to taste a tiny dab of the latex—depending on species, it may be mild, bitter, or acrid ("spicy-hot"). If it's "hot," that may be immediately apparent—or it may take several moments to become painfully apparent.
These characters are vital to identifying which Lactarius species has been found. Several species with copious, unchanging white latex, including the Hygrophorus Milky(L. hygrophoroides) shown above, are very good edibles. Some species can be quite handsome, and they're all symbiotic with trees (mycorrhizal), so Lactarius is surely a cool genus.
Two Mushrooms that GLOW IN THE DARK:
The Jack O'Lantern Mushroom and the Luminescent Panellus Jack O'Lantern Mushroom(Omphalotus illudens, left) and Luminescent Panellus(Panellus stipticus, right).
That's right, you read it correctly: These mushrooms glow in the dark! The greenish glow emanates primarily from the gills.
Oh, it's not a very bright glow, usually… in fact, the best way to observe it is to sit in a totally dark room and let your eyes adjust for several minutes. And some specimens, even nice fresh ones, don't glow enough to see it. But sometimes it's bright enough that you can see it outdoors at night; in fact, that's what "foxfire" is!
I once received a phone call from a fellow who lived near a nuclear reactor. He was contacting me "just to confirm" that there weren't any mushrooms that naturally glowed in the dark, as he was convinced that the nuclear reactor had leaked some radioactivity and failed to report it to the public. He actually sounded disappointed when I told him that the wee little mushrooms growing all over his stack of over-seasoned firewood were probably the Luminescent Panellus, which is perhaps the commonest of several different mushrooms that glow in the dark.
The Luminescent Panellus has another interesting character: it is one of many species of mushrooms that taste very peppery-hot to the tongue. It's considered inedible, in case you're wondering.
The Jack O'Lantern Mushroom, on the other hand, is a significant toxic species that some folks mistake for the delicious Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius). It's not a good error to make, as the Jack O'Lantern Mushroom causes such severe gastrointestinal symptoms (cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea) that victims often need to be hospitalized for a day or two to maintain proper hydration and electrolyte balance.
But hey, in my book, ANY mushroom that actually glows in the dark has GOT to be considered COOL!
The BEAUTIFUL, MYSTICAL MUSHROOMS of GENUS Amanita Cleft-foot Amanita(Amanita brunnescens, left) and Yellow-orange Fly Agaric(A. muscaria var. formosa, right).
If mushroom photographers were to elect a "favorite genus," I suspect it would be Amanita. They're colorful—from white, tan and gray through yellow, orange, and red—and many are multicolored, so they make popular photographic subjects. They also have both universal veils and partial veils (though the partial veils are not evident on some species) that add to their visual personalities.
Ironically, Amanita is also the most dangerous genus—it includes the almost predatory Death Cap(Amanita phalloides) and Destroying Angel(A. virosa and A. bisporigera) mushrooms, which resemble species (of other genera) that are good edibles… the mushrooms attract people to eat them and then cruelly destroy their livers and kidneys. It's a slow, painful way to die.
Other species of Amanita contain completely diferent toxins. Several species—most notably the Fly Agaric(A. muscaria) and the Panther(A. pantherina)—contain muscimol and ibotenic acid, which cause, per Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America, "…delirium, apparent innebriation, manic behavior, and a tendency to perceive small objects as very large. Some victims exhibit a desire for intense physical activity; most experience a deep sleep, usually with visions. Nausea and vomiting may also occur. …" The North American Mycological Association (NAMA)'s Website states that "…the principle effects are on the central nervous system: confusion, visual distortion, a feeling of greater strength, delusions and convulsions. Drowsiness is a common symptoms, and many who ingest these mushrooms fall asleep and can not be roused."
That is, "not right away."
Remarkably enough, some youngsters actually seek these mushrooms, actually pursue this "experience." Old hippies who've tried them generally advise that the Amanita "trip" ain't worth the trauma.
As for me… I just don't eat Amanitas. Some species of the genus are apparently safe, delicious edibles, but many experienced mycologists feel strongly that it is best to look to safer genera for food.
American Caesar's Mushroom(A. jacksonii).
The specimen on the left is just emerging from the universal veil.
My good friend, mentor and colleague Dr. Tim Baroni is among the top experts on gilled mushrooms in the world. He can accurately identify the often-eaten American Caesar's Mushroom(A. jacksonii) from fifty paces. But Tim won't eat 'em. He won't eat any Amanitas. Ask him "Why?" and his answer is always:
"I don't eat Amanitas."
Ask him "But why not?" and he will reply, emphatically and perhaps with a touch of impatience in his voice: "I just don't eat Amanitas."
I've tried a few myself; although several are very highly rated by some, none impressed me. So now, I just don't eat Amanitas.
There is another good reason to appreciate Amanitas: They are very important mushrooms ecologically. With possibly a few exceptions, they are symbiotic (mycorrhizal is the proper term for this biological relationship) with trees such as oak, birch, and various conifers (e.g. pines, spruces, hemlocks).
But without much doubt, the Amanitas' statuesque forms and colorful, often "spotted" caps will continue to captivate nature shutterbugs. Many nature shutterbugs have told me "I photographed a beautiful mushroom, would you be so kind as to look at the photo and identify it for me?" Before I even see the photo, I tell them the genus name, and add "probably the Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria."
And I'm usually right. ;-)
If you think I have overlooked a mushroom at least as "cool" as the ones highlighted on this page, let me know…send me an e-mail at the address indicated below!