Stinkhorn Fungus (Clathrus columnatus [Laternea columnata])
The stinkhorns differ from other Gasteromycetes (puffballs, earthstars, bird’s nest fungus, et al.) in having a slimy or sticky putrid spore mass (gleba) that is held erect when mature. In the immature stage stinkhorns, of which there are various species, immature fruiting bodies are enclosed in a continuous skin thus resembling a bright white hen’s egg. The structure is attached to the substrate by cord-like extensions. In this sense they initially resemble an immature puffball. However this stage is short-lived as the stalk and cap structure within the “egg” elongates, rupturing the skin (periderm) leaving behind the torn periderm which persists as a basal sac or volva.
In some species, the elongated stalk is capped by a “head” (thus the generic name Phallus) which bears a slimy, spore mass, An odor of varying putridness (depending on species and individual human reaction) accompanies stinkhorn spore mass development.
Flies are attracted to the smelly slime and comprise the chief distributor of spores to new places.
C. columnatus is generally southern in distribution and related to the better known Latticed Stinkhorn in which the mature fruiting body consists of narrow branches that link to form a latticework pattern (many online photographs). In C. columnatus, the fruiting body consists of thickened red or orange arms that connect at the apex forming a lantern-like body, The spores, embedded in smelly slime, form on the inner side of the arms (see photo). This fungus is saprophytic, sometimes found where dead wood is at or near the soil surface. The specimen photographed poked through a mulch mat laid down over the location of where a tree was removed two or three years ago, leaving behind wood fragments.