Monday, March 15, 2010

The Case of the Stinking Invader

By Andy Wilson, Extension Specialist

The client was concerned. “What is this thing?” she asked, presenting a tightly capped jar with an orange-colored mass inside at the Lawn and Garden Help Desk. She had observed this orange “thing” slowly emerge from an egg-shaped structure that protruded from the soil. And now this….well, sickening odor filled the air.

The orange “thing” was a columnar stinkhorn, one of several types of stinkhorns sometimes encountered in area landscapes. Stinkhorns are types of saprophytic fungi, that is, they feed on decaying organic matter, not living plants. Stinkhorns are appropriately named. They produce a foul odor that is so intense that one may begin trying to remember just how long it’s been since the quiet neighbor next door was last seen. The odor is convincing enough to trick flies into believing that the orange mass is a dead animal. When the flies land on the stinkhorn to feed, they inadvertently pick up the spores of the fungus in a sticky goo that ensures that the flies will carry some of the spores away and deposit them in another area, spreading the fungus.

What good could possibly be produced by something so vile smelling? Well, like other saprophytic fungi, stinkhorns help to break down organic matter so that the nutrients contained in it are released, allowing plants and other organisms to use them. Still, it’s difficult to see any benefit when you happen to have a stinkhorn appear in an inconvenient spot, such as near your front door or patio, greeting your guests with their distinctive odor.
What to do? There is little that can be done other than scooping out the offending stinkhorns and disposing of them in the garbage. Fungicides are generally not effective against them.

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