The Morel of this Story

A stinky stinkhorn, Phallus species.
A stinky stinkhorn, Phallus species.

The morel of this story was cause for much excitement upon our arrival in Fort Collins, Colorado, yesterday afternoon. I came prepared, my mushroom identification guides in my backpack, in the hopes that the recent rains and warmer temperatures down in Fort Collins would result in some fungus growth. Sure enough, when I asked Wendy if she’d seen any mushrooms around, she replied that there were, in fact, mushrooms growing right in the backyard. 

I rushed outside to find one last mushroom amidst the deep grass and dog poops in her tiny, yet lush, backyard. And it was a morel! I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d never found a morel before, but there are several varieties and they all have distinctive, honeycombed caps and are supposed to be “choice” wild edibles. Gregg was a little turned off by the presence of poop but I assured him I’d wash (even though I understand you aren’t supposed to wash wild mushrooms) and paper-towel it clean, scraping off any dirty parts with a knife. 

A couple of days have passed since the last rain, so the honeycombed cap was starting to decay into brownish goo—but no matter, I’d just eat the stem this time. So I plucked the funny mushroom and showed it to Gregg and Wendy, grinning from ear to ear. 

“That mushroom has a funny smell,” Gregg said, handing it back to me, then repeatedly smelling his fingers and wrinkling his nose. 

“I think it smells delicious,” I countered. “It smells like a yummy mushroom that I want to eat.”   

Wendy commented on the smell, too, but I was too excited to think much about it, so I photographed my mushroom and then washed/rubbed/scraped it clean, removing the gooey cap with a knife. The cap came off the stalk cleanly, leaving me with a spongy, hollow, white stalk that tapered on both ends like a banana. 

I was excited—and nearly 100% certain that I’d found a morel—but I am no fool, so the next thing I did was run to the car to get my mushroom guides and confirm my identification. 

“The prized morels have a hollow, honeycombed cap that is completely intergrown with the stalk,” writes David Arora in All That the Rain Promises and More (1991). 

Hollow stalk? Check. Honeycombed cap? Check. Honeycombed cap completely intergrown with the stalk? No so much. (In fact, the cap of my mushroom slipped off the stalk easily, leaving the spongy banana in its entirety.) Uh oh.  

I read on to find out that “if your ‘morel’ has a sack at the base of the stalk, you have a stinkhorn” and not a “morel” at all. Check.

According to Arora, stinkhorns (Phallus species) are related to puffballs, but are only edible in the egg stage before the odor develops and the stalk appears. Unlike morels, the tips or “horns” of mature stinkhorns are covered with “foul-smelling spore slime.” 

Okay, so I guess at this point I’ll admit that the mushroom I found might have smelled a teensy bit bad after all. Upon realizing that it was not a morel, I tossed it in the trash and we went out to watch a movie, but when we got back it smelled so bad I insisted on taking the trash out.    

According to Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains (1997) by Vera Stucky Evenson, morels (Morchella species) and stinkhorns can be differentiated by when they fruit too, since morels appear in spring and early summer, whereas stinkhorns appear in late summer and early fall. In addition to stinkhorns, there are other “false morels” (Gyromitra species) that can make a person sick, so proper identification is very important when morel-hunting.

Since the morel of this story was, in fact, a stinkhorn—then the moral of this story should be clear by now too:  Always make proper identification prior to consuming a wild mushroom!

Comments

  1. says

    I just found one of these in my backyard, just feet away from the door. I knew it was not a morel at first glance, but was unsure of what it was. Found your page by way of Google and now I know, thank to you. I wouldn’t have eaten it anyway because it was all slimey and gross looking. The funny thing about this mushroom is that, yes, the top does smell odd, but the stem and base smell almost like a lady’s perfume. Thank you for providing this valuable information.

  2. says

    Girlfriend, HOW could you not have noticed that god-awful odor??! Some folks, but not me, actually eat stinkhorns, but usually in their gel egg state, when they are akin to stinky cheese (which I don’t like, either). Another beautiful stinkhorn called the veiled stinkhorn gets eaten when mature, and is now cultivated in China, but all of that stinky gleba (the brown, spore-bearing goo whose foul odor attracts flies for spore dispersal) is throughly washed before it is dried and sold. Its beautiful white indusium or veil makes it particularly eye-catching. Stinkhorns do indeed smell like shit, or perhaps decayed flesh. At any rate, not very appetizing to we humans, and not designed to be so. Flies are the target species.

    Your stinkhorn species pictured here looks to be a Phallus hadriani, a fairly common and uncommonly odoriferous species, which hatches out of a white “egg” that quickly turns purple with exposure to air. They like to grow in composted areas or in wood chip beds.

    Fascinating fungus, but certainly no morel!

    BTW, the timing of fungal fruitings is changing all over the world. Assume nothing when IDing mushrooms for the table.

  3. Pam M says

    Just found a patch of these on Lookout Mtn – your post is dead-on. I was pretty sure it was a stinkhorn, although I couldn’t grok any distinctive bad smell (but then, my nose is nearly 60 years old so it’s slowing down a bit :-)) Anyway, the cap is definitely confusing because of it’s morel-ish look. The ones I saw had the slime on the cap also. Beautiful organism!

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