Stinkhorns: the fungi that smell like rotting flesh on purpose

By Candice Marshall 9 February 2023
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Have you noticed a foul stench at the bottom of your garden?

It’s about this time every year that calls start rolling in to Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden from people concerned about a new addition to their backyards. 

We get lots and lots of phone enquiries coming in saying ‘what’s this horrible, disgusting thing that’s popped up in my garden? Is it going to kill us? What’s it going to do?’,  all that sort of stuff. They’re wanting to know what the hell it is,” says Dr Brett Summerell, the garden’s Chief Botanist and Director of Research.

What they have found are stinkhorn fungi.

“It pops up out of the ground between February and May as we get more wet weather and as the temperatures drop into autumn,” explains Brett.

“It produces this horrible slimy, smelly material that attracts flies. It’s trying to mimic some sort of dying animal or faeces, or something like that.”

The reason it’s trying to make itself as disgusting as possible is to ensure its own survival.

Stinkhorns have evolved to use flies to disperse their spores.

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“People see it pop up and think ‘this thing must be bad’, not just because it stinks but also because of its bright red colouration, but I think they’re an amazingly awesome fungus.”

The scientific name for the stinkhorn family is phallales because – just in case they weren’t weird enough – some varieties look like phalluses.

These stinkers are found all over Australia, particular in areas close to the coast. 

They also hold a proud place in history as the first Australian fungus to be formally described by European science. 

“The first description was in the 1780/’90s by French botanist Jacques Labillardière. He was a really prominent botanist around that time and he described them from collections they found in Tasmania.”

“I think they are absolutely super cool, so bizarre and so weird.

“They are a fun bunch of fungi.”

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