If you are lucky, you will see them before you smell them, but the sight may be just as disconcerting as the odor. Stinkhorns have to be the most disgusting fungi on the planet. Their shocking shape, and often lurid color, is only the beginning. Looking for all the world like the male organ in vegetable form, they also smell like rotting carrion. Nice. That disgusting smell is, of course, designed to attract flies and other bugs that like that sort of thing. They walk all over the slimy head of the stinkhorn and fly off with the spores it bore to sow another patch. They, like many mushrooms, grow from decaying wood, so they can appear almost anywhere and any time that the conditions of moisture and warmth are right. Their rate of growth is nothing short of phenomenal, too. A stinkhorn can emerge from its egg-like underground precursor in just an hour or two.
There’s nothing inherently evil about stinkhorns, although throughout human history they have been accused of dastardly influences. One other common name is devil’s dipstick and they were thought to be evidence of his presence. Witches, too, were accused of causing their appearance. In Germany, they were thought to occur in the forest where deer had rutted. On the flip side, they have also been seen as an aphrodisiac and prescribed as a cure for male problems and other diseases such as rheumatism.
That many of them are edible is generally not known. In Asia, one species of stinkhorn is highly prized. It is consumed fresh or can be found dried in specialty grocers. The underground “egg” that the mushroom emerges from, also known as the “devil’s balls” (we just can’t get away from these allusions), is said to be somewhat gelatinous and tasty when sliced and fried in butter (well, what isn’t, right?). At least the smell should not be so unpleasant if harvested at that stage. Puritanical types might be tempted to root them out as soon as they appear, but they really are quite fascinating and only last for a few days before withering back into the mulch.