Shortly after temperatures starts to turn cool — and particularly after some wet weather — people might find a little surprise in their yards: phallic-looking mushrooms that pop up out of seemingly nowhere.
They're called phallus impudicus — yes, really. (The 16th-century botanist John Gerard called them "pricke mushrooms" or "fungus virilis penis effigie" in his "General Historie of Plants.") The reason's obvious: They look like a man's, well, you know. Some cultures consider the mushrooms to be aphrodisiacs, and even feed them to bulls before they mate. Charles Darwin's daughter was known to harvest and burn them to "protect the morals of the maids."
But phallus impudicus really are nothing more than a type of stinkhorn mushroom that appears during cool, wet weather, mainly in fall and winter. They start with a white "egg" that is partially visible above soil, with a network of roots anchoring it below. Once the mushroom is mature, the full-grown stalk emerges fast — sometimes within an hour.
"The first time I saw one, I jumped, 'what is that?'" says Atlanta chef Joseph Ramaglia, who forages for mushrooms. Phallus impudicus is hard to miss: It can grow to be 6 inches (0.15 meter) long, and it has a brash, offensive smell.
"It smells like — a lot of people say dung, but it smells like decomposition. It's really bad," Ramaglia says. He also says stinkhorn mushrooms are part of a large family with other strange characteristics, such as orange and red colors, and interesting shapes. He's more a fan of the varieties that look like "alien hands" and aren't so stinky.
Even the smell of stinkhorns has been studied for its erotic effects. In Hawaii, an indigenous variety of stinkhorns was called "the women's mushroom" and believed to be a female aphrodisiac — a reputation that a group of scientists decided to test in 2001. Their hypothesis: The smell alone could give women spontaneous orgasms.
After putting the hypothesis to the test with a small group of women — most of whom felt grossed out instead of aroused — the scientists had to conclude the mushrooms failed to excite anyone to orgasmic levels. At least not from smelling them.
So what about when eating them? The stinkhorn mushroom is edible, but only in its egg stage. "I don't think anyone would want to eat [the full-grown mushroom]," Ramaglia says. "It's just too stinky."
But stinkhorns aren't without benefits, as offensive as they might be, in smell and, well, looks. They help decompose wood and improve soil. Scientists recommend putting up with the mushrooms if you find them in your yard, and you can tolerate the stench. If you simply have to get rid of them, the best way is to pick the mushrooms at the egg stage, before they rupture. Then put them in a zip-top plastic bag, and throw them away. Then you can prevent new colonies of mushrooms by removing the mulch or dirt where they grew.