Every spring I get a few contacts about a strange object in someone’s yard. Sometimes a photo is sent and other times just a description. Because it is so unusual, it is easy to identify with or without a photo. It’s a type of fungus called a stinkhorn, of which there are several species. The one that is commonly reported from Missouri is the “elegant stinkhorn.” Although related to mushrooms, puffballs and shelf fungi, it is different enough from those groups that observers often don’t recognize it as a fungus.
It grows as a narrow, pink to orange tube that is 6 to 7 inches long and tapers to a blunt point. At the tip of the hollow tube is a greenish-brown slime, which contains the reproductive spores. The stinkhorn’s foul-smelling odor attracts flies, which eat the slime and spores and also pick it up on their feet. They spread the spores when they fly off. Although stinkhorns do have a disagreeable odor, I’ve had to get my nose close to them to smell it.
This stinkhorn can be found in lawns or in woods or cultivated fields. Most of the reports I’ve received were from lawns or flower beds in urban areas. I’ve had them in the grass of my own lawn a couple of times, appearing overnight when the ground is moist and disappearing after a day or two. Like mushrooms, they don’t necessarily reappear again in the same location.
Stinkhorns are a good reminder of the diversity in the natural world--something odd that we didn’t know existed. Several observers have remarked to me that they’ve lived many years and have never seen one before. Keep your eyes open--there may be something new to you just outside!