Mushroom relative looks like garden prank

Last week a gardener sent me a photo of something interesting that had shown up in their landscape in a mulched bed of Ajuga.  The object appeared to me to be a gardener’s practical joke as the structure looked like an over-sized carrot with two round, white mushrooms at its base.  With all the computer viruses going around, my first thought was, why did I open this attachment?  As I stared at its disgusting, almost obscene shape, Sharon Globig, MSU Extension Master Gardener, brought in the Eyewitness Mushroom Identification book and with a grin on her face said “I think that’s a stink horn.”  She was right. 

Mutinus caninus, also known as “phalloid” fungus or stinkhorns are common in east of the Rocky Mountains. They can be found anywhere outside including grassy ground, rotten wood, mulched beds or compost piles.  The elongated fruiting body consists of a pointed column that is smeared on top with a gelatinous mass of slime and spores.  It can be white to deep orange in color.  The sticky mass is held on the column above the mushroom-like fruiting body where flies are attracted to its foul odor – thus the name stink horn.  According to Globig, the flies act as spore disseminators allowing the fungus move from place to place.

“This time of year its vary common to find mushrooms of all types in your mulch and on any other decaying matter such wood or compost piles,” Globig said.  “They are totally harmless to the landscape, but like any wild mushroom, should be treated with caution as many can be poisonous if ingested.” 

Slime molds

Mulched beds are notorious for having slime molds appear on them that may be various colors, shapes and sizes.  With the erratic weather patterns we have been having this year, most of these harmless nuisances have been showing up just recently in West Michigan.

The slime mold, also known as Fuligo, is a mold that occupies newly applied hardwood bark mulch.  The fungus is a natural occurring organism originating at soil level that breaks down organic matter.  When you apply the bark mulch and the correct amount of water, presto-chango! – you’ve got a oozy-looking glob on your landscape bed. 

Annual applications of hardwood bark literally feed this fungus by providing the right amount of carbohydrate and nutrient for it to grow.  Turning the mulch with a pitchfork on a regular basis could help break the fruiting cycle of Fuligo but honestly, who is going to do that all year? There are no chemical controls for slime mold, and there is no way to know if it will come back next year.  It probably will.

Studying the wide range of fungus can be an entertaining pass time as many of them look like aliens from outer-space.  The Eyewitness Mushroom book, a Dorling Kindersley Ltd. Production and the Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide from the University of Michigan   Press are great additions to any gardener’s library.

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