Monday, January 29, 2007

If you don't know it, don't kick it

By Sherry Boas
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 28, 2007)

“What's that?” my husband asked, his right boot poised over the spongy red blob.

“Don’t touch it!” I shouted, halting his kick in mid-air. “That’s a mushroom, I forget what it’s called, but it stinks like crazy if you knock it over.”

“You’re kidding me,” he said. “That’s a mushroom?”

I admit it didn’t look like any mushroom you’d find in the produce rack, but the strange object that emerged after yesterday’s rain was indeed a fungus. Its botanical name, Clathrus columnatus
 does little to define its form or characteristics. Not so its common moniker. Columned stinkhorn mushroom paints a much more appropriate picture.

Imagine a decaying slab of meat left in the sun for hours – that’s the odor a c
olumned stinkhorn  emits.

Picture four separate tentacles sticking out of the ground, joined together at the top. Oh, and mentally paint them bright red. That’s how a c
olumned stinkhorn looks. It’s so unusual looking - so oddly shaped - you instinctively want to reach out and touch it. Resist the temptation.

Columned stinkhorn belong to a family of off-smelling ‘shrooms called stinkhorns, members of the order Phallales. At some stage in their development, all stinkhorns, which emerge from white egg-like growths, produce a foul smelling mass of spores. In columned stinkhorn, the odiferous spoor mass looks like gray-green slime coating the inside of each tentacle. 

Although the mushroom’s fetid odor shouts, “stay away!” to people, its message is more a seductive, “come hither” to flies and beetles. That’s a good thing too, because carrion-loving insects are essential to the plant’s propagation. Spoors are inadvertently collected when the insects crawl over the plant surface in search of food. When they fly away, they carry with them tiny spoors transported to new locations.

Despite my insistence that he leave the mushroom alone, my husband had to prove to himself that the object was truly a fungus and not some red spongy toy left in the middle of the grassy path. He got down at ground level to inspect it more closely.

“I don’t smell anything,” he said sticking his nose right next to the mushroom.

“And I can’t believe you can’t smell it,” I said moving quickly away from the rancid odor. “This is one of those times when it’s a good thing to be congested.”

Before coming upon the mushroom, we had been discussing a bronchial cough my husband has been complaining of lately.

“Take me word for it,” I said. “It doesn’t smell good.”

I’m not sure he believed me but he got up from the ground and managed to control his urge to give the spongy blob a hard tap with his toe.

One of the reasons I like taking walks is making discoveries. Today it was a red mushroom that smelled like dead meat. Maybe tomorrow it will be ripe loquats or a hawk flying off with a snake in its talons. There’s a world of mystery and wonder waiting to be uncovered if just step outside and take a peek. Open you eyes, ears and, yes, noses to nature. You never know what weird and wondrous things you’ll find.

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