Common Name: Elegant Stinkhorn, Devil’s Dipstick, Devil’s Horn, Devil’s Stinkpot, Dog Penis – The fetid smell of the fungus coupled with its cornucopian shape is appropriately used for the common name stinkhorn. The more pejorative names are based on its phallic appearance. Elegant may be in reference to its unadorned, almost artistic simplicity, however suggestive.
Scientific Name: Mutinus elegans – The generic name is derived from an early Roman god of fertility, Mutinus Titinus, whose beneficence was sought by women to facilitate the conception of a child. Mutinus was originally thought to have been the focus of a phallic worship cult in early Rome and was related to the Greek god Priapus (the adjective priapic means using the phallus in a symbolic manner). Priapus was one of the regional names for the god Pan, the protector of the flocks who was also deemed responsible for the fecundity of the ewes, thus establishing the phallic association. The use of the god of fertility as the name of the genus is an obvious reference to the phallic shape of the stinkhorn fungus. Elegans is Latin for elegant. Stinkhorns are in the family Phallaceae, which is also derived form the priapic root phallus.
Potpourri: Stinkhorns have a singular reproductive scheme that is testimony to the creativity of natural adaptation, generally a characteristic of higher order life forms. Unlike mushrooms, the fruiting body of the stinkhorn retains its stem-like shape as it emerges from the ground; there is no cap with gills on the underside to assist in wind-borne dispersion of the reproductive spores. The stinkhorn’s spores are distributed in a slimy, deliquescent mass that is slathered around the top of the emergent column. The smell is intended to be odious as it replicates the odor of carrion so at to attract insects, notably flies, for spore dispersal. The synomone smell is intended to be odious as it replicates the odor of carrion so at to attract insects, notably flies, for spore dispersal. A synomone is a smell used as a signal among members of different species when both species benefit from the message. Pheromones are similar chemicals used to transmit smell signals such as sex or alarm among members of the same species. There are also allomones that benefit only the sender and kairomones that benefit only the receiver. The olfactory message system of arthropods is surprisingly complex. The “sporinators” feast on the slime, covering their legs with it in their bacchanalian revel, spreading the reproductive bodies of the stinkhorn after their reluctant departure. It is not clear if the relationship is symbiotic, as the flies may not derive any nutritional benefit from the fungus. The stinkhorn, however, depends absolutely on the flies.
The peculiar and suggestive attributes of the stinkhorn fungus have engendered a broad range of colloquial beliefs and superstitions associated with their origin and with their effects on humans. In Germany, hunters once called the stinkhorn hirschbrunst, which roughly translates as “deer lust”; they believed that the stinkhorn emerged only in locations where stags had rutted. A probably apocryphal story attributed to Gwen Raverat and popularized by David Arora in the classic Mushrooms Demystified tells of her Aunt Etty’s attempts to eradicate the stinkhorn: “With a deadly pounce, she would fall upon her victim and poke his putrid carcass into her basket” to be “brought back and burnt with deepest secrecy in the drawing room fire with the door locked – because of the morals of the maids.” This attempt to prevent degenerate thoughts on the part of young Victorian Age women is given more credence as Aunt Etty was purportedly the daughter of Charles Darwin. It may not quite be what he intended as an example of “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.”
Stinkhorns are also thought to have potential as palliatives for a variety of medical conditions. They were touted for ameliorating ulcers, gout, epilepsy, and if carried about as a sort of talisman, as a cure for rheumatism. There is no credible medical evidence to support any of these assertions. Most importantly, and in keeping with the doctrine of signatures, stinkhorns were thought to act as aphrodisiacs, imparting virility to the consumer; the phallic shape of the fungus providing the rather obvious signature of the penis for use to impart improvements to afflictions suffered thereof. Stinkhorns were at one time fed to bulls for this purpose in Europe. To achieve the desired effect in humans would also necessitate the ingestion of the stinkhorn, a gastronomic challenge given its rather mephitic aroma.
The stinkhorn erupts from an egg-shaped body called a volva when the environmental conditions favor spore dispersal. This occurs in a very short time; according to folklore, you can watch it grow. It is these nascent stinkhorns that serve as the food source for mycophagists from Europe and North America. Called “devil’s balls,” by some, they are characterized as gelatinous and quite good when sliced and fried in butter. The consumption of stinkhorns is much more a cultural norm in China, where fungi are considered a substantive part of a normal diet. The most commonly consumed stinkhorn is the basket stinkhorn (Dictyophora industiata), which is a tropical variant with a netted veil. Dried packages of stinkhorn can be purchased at many Asian supermarkets.