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The Stink Of the Stinkhorn

Phallus impudicus fruiting body
THE STINK OF THE STINKHORN
SIÔN PARKINSON

In Roger Phillips’ famous identification guide Mushrooms, the author uses seventy-six different words to describe the smell of mushrooms. I know because I counted them. The result reads as a list of ingredients for some frightful recipe: elderflower, geranium, aniseed, fenugreek, coconut, plums, rhubarb, over-ripe pears, cucumber, chicory, crushed tomato leaves, bean sprouts, radishes, raw potatoes, rotten wood, rotten cloth, bugs, mould, mice, must, sawdust, cedar-wood pencils, old wine casks, camembert cheese, tallow, soap, coal-tar, ammonia, boiled cabbage, crabmeat, shrimp and so on.

More prosaically, according to Philips there are mushrooms that smell ‘fungussy’. And some that smell, well, ‘mushroomy’. ‘Scent is used for a few mushrooms as a reliable field identification aid,’ Phillips told me. ‘Some of them have a spermatic scent, others have a fruity scent, some mealy, some fishy. Smell is very difficult to describe except by comparison.’ Sometimes a mushroom just smells like a mushroom.

P. impudicus volva

In contrast to the rich way in which we describe the visual world, the language of scent is notoriously poor. Rather than the explicit words we use to evoke colour, form, texture etc. we tend to describe smells only via their resemblance to other smells. Take for example the Goat Moth Wax Cap Hygrophorus cossus which Philips describes as smelling like ‘goat-moth larvae’. Both the mushroom’s colloquial and scientific names absorb this smell by taking on the name of the Goat Moth Cossus cossus.

But the name of the Goat Moth Wax Cap is inexact. It does not smell like the Goat Moth , nor even its caterpillar. Instead, its smell is that of the larval discharge that weeps out of boreholes in the bark from which the Goat Moth caterpillar feeds. It is this fermented faecal excretion that smells like a goat — or to be even more pedantic, like the smell of stale urine and glandular secretions on the hair of a male adult goat. The naming of the Goat Moth Wax Cap therefore presents us with an extraordinarily complex metaphor that links together several esoteric elements and subjective smell experiences. That is, the rancid, buttery, animalic smell of a goat and its similarity to the smell of the fermented excretions of the Goat Moth caterpillar and its similarity to the scent of a species of woodwax mushroom.

“SMELL IS VERY DIFFICULT TO DESCRIBE EXCEPT BY COMPARISON.’ SOMETIMES A MUSHROOM JUST SMELLS LIKE A MUSHROOM”

As poetic as the naming of the Goat Moth Wax Cap is, scratch its surface and it shows up the shoddiness of the language of scent. But there are other mushrooms whose names characterise their smell much more efficiently. Take the stinkhorn. Stinkhorns stink. They stink so much, in fact, that you smell one before you see it, and you might not see it at all. Their exact location can often be discerned by the hum of flies that hover above it like a spectre. When you do finally spot the offending mushroom, there is (for me at least and my puerile sense of humour) a moment of pure joy. But this feeling of delight is quickly replaced by one of disgust; disgust at the spectacle of flies swarming a slimy, faeces-smeared phallus; disgust at the sheer stench of the thing. You can only stand the stinkhorn for so long before its foetid odour begins to move downward through your body from your nose to your stomach.

P. impudicus cap

Stinkhorns are often described as smelling of rotting meat or dung. Early naturalists described their scent as being ‘abominable’ and ‘offensive’. Stinkhorn odour is so powerfully diffusive that it has been said a bitch in heat can pick up its scent from three miles away. In olfactory terms, the space a single stinkhorn occupies above ground is enormous. This is by design. The stinkhorn lifecycle relies on insects. The synthesised stench of carrion in the air causes insect antennae to twitch, exciting flesh- and dung-eating flies with the promise of food or a potential site in which to lay their eggs. When they first arrive on the scene, instead of a protein-rich animal corpse, the flies find a sweet, sticky slime which they feed on frenziedly. The flies then carry off particles of spore-rich slime to other parts of the forest on their limbs (it has been claimed that a speck of stinkhorn slime on the hair of a fly may contain twenty million spores) and in their faeces. Stinkhorn slime has a laxative effect on flies meaning spore dispersal occurs near the mushroom thereby increasing the fungus’ chance of growth in similarly rich soil. It is not unusual to find in just one spot several stinkhorns in various states of erectness poking up through the soil.

To humans, stink is a signifier of death and disease. To non-humans, such as the necrophagous or coprophagous fly, it is the promise of food and fecundity. Stink is relative. In one context it can be repulsive, in another it can be appealing, nostalgic even. Think of the stale scent of sex, for example, or the fruity fragrance of petrol, the milk-rich smells of a new-born child, of unwashed pet hair, or even our food. Époisses, a delicious, runny, and notoriously pungent French cheese, shares some of the same chemical compounds as pig dung (isovaleric acid; ‘stale-crotch’, ‘stinky feet’). It is the only cheese banned by law from the Parisian public transport system, and yet we happily keep it in our kitchens and smear it on our crackers.

“TO HUMANS, STINK IS A SIGNIFIER OF DEATH AND DISEASE. TO NON-HUMANS, SUCH AS THE NECROPHAGOUS OR COPROPHAGOUS FLY, IT IS THE PROMISE OF FOOD AND FECUNDITY. STINK IS RELATIVE”

P. impudicus shaft

In some parts of Southeast Asia, Durian fruit is similarly banned in public spaces due to its strong odour of turpentine and excrement. Then there is the fermented, ammonia-infused flesh of the Greenland shark, the Icelandic delicacy Hákarl. What is it that compels us to put such rank-smelling substances in our mouths? The argument is generally that, if you can get past the stench, it’s not half bad. Delicious, even. I would argue the same applies to the stinkhorn. If not in an enclosed space, and you can get past sight of the flies, the smell of a stinkhorn is really not that bad. Savoury, oniony, like the smell of warm exhaust fumes coming out of a takeaway kitchen extraction fan. But what is that smell, exactly?

In 2014, a group of chemists at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague measured the different compounds the stinkhorn emits at different stages in its lifecycle. A technique called gas chromatography and mass spectrometry olfactometry (GC-MS-O), effectively affords scientists an electronic nose to analyse the different odorants a solid material lets off into the air. It is these volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that allow a thing to be smelled. What makes the stinkhorn stink, apparently, is a group of particularly pungent VOCs called oligosulphides. The worst offender is the compound dimethyl trisulfide. According to the website The Good Scent Company, the odour of dimethyl trisulfide is described as like ‘cabbage, raw onions, meaty, fishy, scallop, creamy’. It doesn’t sound all that bad, does it? Sounds like something you might be served on a plate in a beerhall somewhere in Prague.

Along with the not-so-subtly named cadaverine (‘dead animal’, ‘fresh semen’) and putrescine (‘rotting fish’, ‘human milk’, ‘out of date edamame’), oligosulphides are the compounds most responsible for the sulphuric, cabbage-like stench of a rotting corpse. It is this scent that the stinkhorn uses to deceive flies into thinking its sporacious slime is in fact carrion or carnivore faeces.

The lack of language used to describe scent could possibly explain why the history of scientific classification of stinkhorns in the family Phallaceae make more reference to their shape rather than their smell. Let us be blunt: the stinkhorn looks like a cock and balls (ball singular, to be precise). The mushroom emerges from the earth first as a white, leathery, gelatinous sac, colloquially known as a ‘witch’s egg’. From this egg erupts a long, gently curving white shaft with a shiny glans-like cap perched on top. The phallic shape of the stinkhorn has captivated male (for they were mostly male) botanists and mycologists ever since it was first described by Pliny in his Natural History. A hundred years after the Natural History was first published in Europe, Dutch physician and botanist Adriaan de Jonghe, better known as Hadrianus Junius, produced a pamphlet describing a single species of mushroom (what we now know as the dune stinkhorn) in prose and poetry. The pamphlet features a wonderful woodcut of the mushroom, separating it into ‘shaft’, ‘glans’ and ‘volva’. His anatomical description, together with his illustration, presented an autopsy of a mushroom for the first time.

P. impudicus immature Witch's Egg

It is hardly surprising that the author of the first ever publication on a single species of mushroom chose for his subject the stinkhorn. To look upon the stinkhorn is to witness nature at its most brazen. It is, as Junius put it, ‘an explicit picture of life’. And it just so happens to remind men of their own penises. Junius called his mushroom Phalli on account of its shape, and it was later classified as Phallus hadriani in homage to the author. (The Latin name literally translates as ‘Adriaan’s phallus’, which we can only imagine he would have taken as a huge compliment.) John Gerard called it the Pricke mushroom; John Parkinson, the Dutch Toole. In the history of scientific classification, none of the Latin names ascribed to any species of Phallus reference the fact that they stink. All talk about their resemblance to an erect penis.

“TO LOOK UPON THE STINKHORN IS TO WITNESS NATURE AT ITS MOST BRAZEN. IT IS, AS JUNIUS PUT IT, ‘AN EXPLICIT PICTURE OF LIFE’”

The name for the common stinkhorn Phallus impudicus as given to it by Linnaeus in 1753 means ‘impudent’ or ‘shameless’ phallus. The Latin name for the beautifully veiled bamboo fungus Phallus indusiatus means ‘phallus with an undergarment’. Phallus atrovolvatus is more generous to gender. Described as new to science in 2005, Phallus atrovolvatus translates as ‘phallus with a blackened womb’ on account of the gloomy colour of the egg from which the mature mushroom pricks up. But this is a rare deviation from a largely phallocentric tradition of naming.

The prioritising of sight over smell in the classification of stinkhorns is at odds with the colloquial names we Europeans have for them. For example, in Germany and Russia, Phallus impudicus is known as the ‘stinky morel’, a reference to the mushroom’s likeness to the morel’s brain like cap. In Czech it is the ‘stink snake’. In Bulgaria, the ‘stinking sponge’. And in Bosnia it is known as the ‘stinking singer’ (my personal favourite). The French call it le satyre puant, or the ‘stinking satyr’, a name that captures both the sight and smell of the mushroom with the classical allusion early naturalists so enjoyed.

To focus on the phallus is to ignore the function of the stinkhorn, its raison d’être. That is, to stink. As any forager will tell you, the stink of the stinkhorn comes first, the sight second. And though it is not always easy to put into words, we all somehow know this smell, know it intuitively, recalling it somewhere deep within our bodies. The stink of the stinkhorn is a primordial smell, the ur-smell, the smell of a rot, of disease and death, and portentous of our own ultimate death and decay. Words fail. Sometimes things just stink.

“THE FRENCH CALL IT LE SATYRE PUANT, OR THE ‘STINKING SATYR’, A NAME THAT CAPTURES BOTH THE SIGHT AND SMELL OF THE MUSHROOM WITH THE CLASSICAL ALLUSION EARLY NATURALISTS SO ENJOYED.”

All images by Siôn Parkinson

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