Out See Go, by Chris Engle, contributor
By the time I pulled into a faraway spot in the Gaylord Meijer parking lot and unbuckled my seat belt, another couple was already investigating the odd-looking fungi growing at the base of a small tree.
“You guys came to see the mushrooms too, eh?” I asked the husband and wife as they knelt beside the patch of landscaping mulch surrounding the tree trunk. There are dozens of these ornamental trees lining the outskirts of the grocery-store parking lot but only two were graced with stinkhorns this week.
“Stinkhorn” is one of those less-than-creative names in nature where two of its most obvious features — its smell and shape — were slapped together in a rushed taxological effort to name the thing. Another prime example is Africa’s white-bellied go-away bird, named for its (you guessed it) white belly and a call that kind of sounds like it’s saying “go away, go away!” Whoever named the poor creature really phoned it in that day.
This being my first time seeing a stinkhorn mushroom, I quickly dove in nose first to capture some of its rumored stench in my nostrils. Like a dog sniffing out his preferred potty spot I searched out its scent, with the best-case scenario of actually catching a good whiff of whatever awful aroma it exudes. But stink it did not.
I picked up a broken piece of a fallen-over stinkhorn and held it to my nose. It smelled like rain — it had been raining pretty good those last few days — with a hint of morel mushroom mixed in. Its texture was like a soggy sponge which could be explained by all the pores in its soft, white flesh.
The couple noted the mushroom sort of resembled a morel or, at best, a false morel, but the similarities ended there.
There’s no possible way a picker would confuse a stinkhorn for a morel. For starters, this is fall and morels emerge only in the spring (typically April to June). And while this variety shares a similar color palate with morels, most other stinkhorns are vibrant red or orange — colors usually reserved for inedible or toxic mushrooms.
A quick Internet search revealed other people who found stinkhorns growing in their mulch too. It seems the spores reside in the mulch (kept moist inside its factory packaging), grow into a fungus in the landscaped area and, when conditions are right, emerge as a mushroom to produce more spores.
Michigan State University Extension says Michigan’s two native species — stinky dog stinkhorn and elegant stinkhorn — use their foul smell to attract insects which then spread its spores across the landscape. Other plants like the rainforest “corpse flower” use the same strategy.
If you really want to see some mushrooms this time of year, you won’t have to go nosing around a grocery-chain car lot to do so. Check out one of my spots instead.
The first is Pine Baron Pathway down the dead-end Lone Pine Road (off Old Alba Road). The clover-shaped network of trails is host to all kinds of colorful fall mushrooms, my favorite being the red, yellow or orange varieties of amanitas. Also known as the “fly agaric,” these are the traditional fairytale toadstools from the storybooks. Don’t eat them unless you want to chase imaginary gnomes through the woods for the next 12 to 36 hours and risk dying in the process.
The second is HeadWaters Land Conservancy’s awesome Sturgeon River Preserve north of Gaylord on Whitmarsh Road (off Old 27). It’s here I find wispy white ghost flowers, lots of amanitas and all kinds of shelf mushrooms growing across the 40 acres of cedar and upland forests.
Happy hunting! Remember, some of the best fall colors are found looking down.
Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.