BERTAUSKI COLUMN: Stinkhorn -- Mushroom family has smelly members

Stinkhorn can be found growing in mulched beds, harmlessly feeding on organic matter but stinking to high heaven.

Zombies aren't real, right?

There exists a zombie fungus that attacks Brazilian ants that reportedly takes over their brains and directs them in ways to spread the zombie fungus to other victims. Once the fungus consumes its victim's body, it branches out like antlers in an effort to contact another host. If a fungus could do that to an ant, what about a human? Think about that the next time you watch "Night of the Living Dead."

Fungus is a diminutive and rather inconspicuous organism that appears on rotting logs, inside old bags of bread and in carved pumpkins. While it may go mostly unnoticed, it's not always small. One particular fungus has been found in the soil and can cover nearly 4 square miles. It's considered the largest organism on Earth.

The body of a fungus is composed mostly of white filaments similar to fine roots. Since it cannot photosynthesize to produce its own food, it takes it from a host. While some fungi are parasitic, infecting plants, ants or zombies, most are saprophytic, consuming nonliving organic matter such as mulch and fallen leaves.

We often don't notice fungus until the fruiting body appears as a mushroom. Depending on the species, mushrooms can be a gourmet delicacy, deadly poison or psychedelic trip. For most of us, it's not safe to eat a mushroom found in the woods unless you know what you're doing.

There is one family of mushrooms that doesn't take an expert to avoid: the stinkhorn.

These mushrooms smell like something died. Depending on the species of stinkhorn, they are called dead man's fingers, devil's horn, devil's stinkpot and many other names with the word devil.

The mushroom seems to pop up overnight, and the shape and color varies widely. Some appear like tentacles, others like dead blackened fingers.

Many occur naturally in the United States, dispersing spores (the fungal "seed") by attracting flies with foul-smelling slime that oozes from the mushroom. Insects pick up the spores on their feet and spread it.

Aside from the rancid smell, they are not harmful. While some sources claim that certain types of stinkhorn are harvested for human consumption, it's best to steer clear of that thought. But I doubt anyone would need to be convinced of that advice.

Stinkhorns are saprophytic and appear in mulched flower beds. They are more common in hardwood mulch, which serves as an excellent food source for the fungus. They are not parasitic on plants, so there's no harm done except to our noses.

There is no way to control the fungus other than removing the mulch and replacing with a nonwood source, such as pine straw or gravel. There is no chemical product that will kill or prevent stinkhorn from emerging. They are short-lived and frequently don't appear in the same area year after year. Simply digging it up and disposing of it is the best approach.

Other fungi may appear in mulched beds that aren't foul smelling but still a nuisance. Slime molds can appear as yellow, pink or orange puddles of vomit several inches in diameter. Slime molds don't smell but look repulsive. However, they harmlessly feed on the organic matter and can be removed with a shovel if desired.

The artillery fungus is not so innocent as the stinkhorns and slime mold. While artillery fungus is not nauseating in sight or smell, it can damage the siding of our homes. While it feeds on the mulch, it produces tiny cannonball-like structures that contain spores.

When mature, the fungus shoots the spore-cannonball high in the air in hopes of landing on a suitable place to spread the fungus. However, they often end up stuck to the house or car, resembling tiny spots of tar that are very difficult to remove. Again, there is no treatment other than using nonwood mulch.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, e-mail him at tony.