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Quick facts

Common names: stinkhorn, common stinkhorn

Scientific name: Phallus impudicus

Family: Phallaceae

Fruiting season: the ‘eggs’ of the unripe stinkhorn can be seen at any time of the year, but they tend to lie dormant until the summer, then fruit to late autumn

Habitat: coniferous and broadleaf woodland

What does stinkhorn look like?

Stinkhorn can grow up to 25cm tall and resembles a phallus when fully emerged from the egg-like structure which contains the immature fruiting body. Once the fruiting body emerges, the young cap oozes a spore-bearing sticky gel called gleba which attracts the flies and other insects it relies on to distribute its spores. It smells like rotting flesh.

Cap: when the ‘egg’, which is around 4–8cm in diameter, is ready to fruit, it elongates until it ruptures, the stipe quickly emerging bearing the conical-shaped cap on top. The cap is coated in a dark, olive-green slime and crowned by a small white ring. Underneath the slime (or gleba) coating, the cap has a raised off-white to grey-white honeycomb appearance and is around 2.5–5cm across.

Gills/spores: the spores are yellow and held in the slimy gleba which coats the fungus cap. The gleba is distributed by flies attracted to it.

Stipe (stem): a thick white polystyrene-like stem, of 2–4cm diameter, emerges from the ‘egg’ when the egg erupts.

Not to be confused with: two other stinkhorns – the dune stinkhorn (Phallus hadriani) and the dog stinkhorn (Mutinus caninus). The former tends to be found in sand dunes and its volva is violet-coloured; whereas the latter’s cap is orange beneath the gleba.

stinhkorn

Credit: Blickwinkel / Alamy Stock Photo

Where to find stinkhorn

It is very common in the UK and Ireland and most of mainland Europe. It grows in all types of woodland, particularly coniferous, and in gardens. More often smelled than seen; its aroma can be detected far and wide and can be mistaken for dead animals or bad drains.

Did you know?

As faeces and the occasional dead badger are to be found in and around badger setts, blowflies are more likely to land there and deposit the spores, which is why stinkhorns are particularly prevalent around badger setts.

Value to wildlife

Though the fungus attracts blowflies and other insects with its smell of rotting meat, the flies don’t actually lay their eggs on it because instead of tasting of flesh, the gleba liquefies under a fly’s proboscis to provide a sugary drink on which the fly gorges. The drink contains spores – which pass undigested through the fly – while the gel, also containing spores, sticks to its legs. The spores then end up on the dung or carrion the fly visits.

Stinkhorn is also involved in nutrient cycling in the soil.

stinkhorn with flies

Credit: Heike Odermatt / naturepl.com

Mythology and symbolism

In 1597, herbalist John Gerard referred to the stinkhorn as the ‘prike mushroom’; while folk names for the fungus included ‘deadman’s cock’. Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, Gwen Raverat claimed in her 1952 memoir Period Piece that in order to protect the morals of the maids, her Aunt Hetty – Darwins’ daughter – collected stinkhorns from the woods and burnt them in secret.

Uses of stinkhorn

Stinkhorn is edible, but only at the egg stage when the smell is less strong. The inner layer can be cut out with a knife and eaten raw – it is crisp and crunchy with a radish-like taste.

In parts of France and Germany, young stinkhorns are eaten fresh, pickled and also in sausages, and the powdered fungus is said to be used as an aphrodisiac for cattle.

Did you know?

Its scientific name 'Phallus' relates to its phallic appearance, while impudicus is Latin for ‘immodest’ or ‘shameless'. Stinkhorn quite literally means shameless phallus.