One of the fun parts of being an extension agent is that I never know what might walk through the door from one day to the next. Most recently, a mildly frantic call from the front lobby brought me running up to see what was the matter. What hit me first, unfortunately, was the stench of the object in question, rather than the object itself.
A poor, unsuspecting homeowner had brought in a curious mushroom called a stinkhorn. This time of year, when
temperatures are cooler but not very dry, a foul-smelling mushroom appears in many landscapes. The odor is best described as rotting meat (think dead frog or dirty diaper that’s been sitting out in the sun), and the stench successfully attracts flies and ants that carry the mushroom’s spores to other places. But this often causes people to come to us seeking advice on how to get rid of it.
The hardest part was convincing this particular homeowner that the mushroom was harmless, if not good for her landscape. In natural, wooded areas, mushrooms help the decomposition process by breaking down materials like rotting wood from fallen limbs and trees. In home landscapes, these stinkhorns will usually pop up in a landscaped bed with wood mulch. It’s not really a problem, unless your open kitchen window happens to be downwind from the garden. Pee-yew!
The stinkhorn fungi produce an egg-like growth that is partially hidden underground. From this “egg” a mushroom emerges. This is the reproductive part of the plant, and it is at this stage the unpleasant smell is released. So I recommended 4 options to the desperate homeowner:
1. While wearing gloves, find the underground “eggs” and dispose of them in a plastic bag. This will help to reduce the spread of spores and cut off the source of the smell by hand-picking these mushrooms before they open.
2. Clear the mulch in which the mushrooms are growing back to the soil level to try to remove most of the colonies
present. (This is a lot of work and is not guaranteed to solve the problem, though.)
3. Consider planting ground covers like jasmine, ivy or mondo grass that will eventually fill-in and eliminate the need for wood mulch in that area. (This is definitely a long-term solution.)
4. If all else fails, close all the windows, light a few scented candles, and wait until spring to venture out in the garden again. (Lucky for me, the homeowner had a sense of humor.)