Fairchild’s tropical garden column

A stinky family moves in

 

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

They are nearly impossible to miss. They are neither plant nor animal, though they share traits of both. The bright-red globes have been popping up in gardens and mulched areas in South Florida and Gulf Coast areas for years. And they smell horrendous.

Believe it or not, they are mushrooms. These fungi are commonly called lattice stinkhorn mushrooms, but are not the kind of mushrooms you would want to eat.

A neighbor had initially pointed out to me that “something weird” was growing down my block. Naturally I grabbed my camera and ran. The individual was covered in flies, smelled like rotten meat and had a lattice pattern on its surface, hence its common name, the lattice stinkhorn.

Stinkhorns belong to the Phallaceae family of fungi, and quite often live up to their family name in shape. They usually live up to their common name in smell as well, and like you and I, they love the tropics.

The lattice example, shaped like an elongated ball, is known to science as Clathrus crispus. The Clathrus genus embodies an impudent group of very weird-looking fungi as it turns out; evidence of this — to me at least — includes mushrooms that look like rooster claws (Clathrus columnatus) or the devil’s fingers (Clathrus archeri). Our lattice friend even has a sibling: Clathrus ruber. They look very similar, but the holes making up the latticework in C. crispus are radially grooved. Don’t want to get close enough to look for the difference? That’s fine. You’re more likely to encounter C. crispus in our region anyhow, as it’s a tropical species, first described in Haiti.

Many fungi exist for most of their lives secretly underground, unseen by us. It’s only when the mycelium — the vegetative part of the fungus — creates fruit that we see them. Mushrooms are actually the fruit of the fungus itself, as they’re used in reproduction and are responsible for broadcasting spores. Imagine an apple tree buried underground so only the apples towards the top are visible at the surface. That’s kind of like what’s going on with fungi, mushrooms being the apples.

And fungi belong to their own kingdom of life, being neither plant nor animal. Evolutionarily speaking, they are a bit more closely related to animals than to plants. Plus their cell walls are composed of chitin, a component of insect and crustacean exoskeletons. It doesn’t get much stranger than this.

The lattice stinkhorn appears first as an egg-like structure, covered in a white veil, which grows until it splits open in slimy, stinky glory. As it balloons out of the egg stage, the white veil disintegrates, freeing the red lattice structure to grow up into an oval, almost bulb shape. The sickly green areas open eventually to complete the hollowness of the fully formed fruit body, revealing the gleba — where all the spores reside. The slime covering it exudes the smell of carrion to attract flies, and does it ever! The flies get to eat, and the mushroom in turn has its spores carried aloft by the flies, on their bodies as well as in their excrement.

This friendly fungus is saprobic, i.e. feeding on already dead organic matter and not attacking anything still living like some other types of fungi may. That’s why it’s so often found on mulch in South Florida and the Gulf area — mulch is dead wood after all, where the stinkhorn’s spores may already be present. Great decomposers, fungi help break down mulch and dead wood in general, thus enriching your soil.

So if you see a fly- and slime-covered hollow red sphere growing from an egg in your yard, know that it’s not harming your trees or plants in any way, and is actually helping. If you really want to evict this stinky family of fungi, do not use a fungicide, which will do much more harm to our water reserves and soil than any good. You can simply use a shovel to scoop up the mushrooms and surrounding mulch or soil and throw them away.

Kenneth Setzer is a writer and editor at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Read more Home & Garden stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">Details matter:</span> Spring tablescapes are at their best when filled with intriguing layers and a beguiling combination of colors, yet feel airy and fresh.

    Style

    5 tips for setting a stunning spring table

    Light and breezy, super easy: It’s a good motto when it comes to setting a stunning table for a spring soirée. The spring tablescapes that lift my heart are filled with intriguing layers and a beguiling combination of colors, yet feel airy and fresh. Here are five insider tips on how to achieve this delicate balance:

  • Selling your home

    Fake wood paneling: remove or paint over?

    Q: Some of the walls in our house are covered in fake wood paneling. Should we replace it?

  • Living Smart

    What to do before you hire a landscaper

    Ready to hire help to spruce up your property this year?

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category