Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Magnificent Mushroom

Way, way back in 1976, in my A-Level biology class at school in Singapore, I first heard of a peculiar type of fungus, the name of which, Phallus impudicus, says it all (Phallus, well…; and impudicus meaning shameless or immodest). Its common name is somewhat less explicit but just as appropriate - the Common Stinkhorn.

A few years later, while an undergrad at university in Canberra, I bought a book titled The Sex Life of Plants, by Alec Bristow (Cassell Australia, 1978) for which the frontispiece (if not the dust-jacket!) is a very suggestive drawing of Phallus impudicus below the flower of a species from the pea family called Clitoria ternatea.

The frontispiece from The Sex Life of Plants by Alec Bristow.

Ever since, I have wanted to see in the wild any of the Phallus species. Not purely for any puerile titillative reasons you understand, but because of their remarkable structure, and because I have a general interest in fungi along with so many other things in nature.

Well, it has finally happened! While in Cairns last weekend, I saw two specimens of a related species, Phallus indusiatus, which if anything is more incredible in structure than P. impudicus. [indusiatus is from the Latin meaning 'wearing an undergarment'.] They were thrusting from the mulch around the bushes in the immaculately manicured gardens of the motel/resort we were staying at, just metres from the door of our unit.

Phallus indusiatus, the Bridal Veil Mushroom, is also known variously as the Veiled Lady, Long Net Stinkhorn, Crinoline Stinkhorn, Basket Stinkhorn, and Bamboo Mushroom.

P. indusiatus is one of around 30 species in the genus Phallus, the stinkhorns, in the family Phallaceae. They are generally of tropical distribution, with several species occurring in Australia. P. indusiatus is widely distributed and has been found in Africa (Zaire, Congo, Nigeria and Uganda), South and Central America (Brazil, Guyana, Venezuela, Tobago, Costa Rica), Mexico, Asia (Japan, southern China, Taiwan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia), and in Australia. Most species, however, are more restricted in range than this. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phallus_(fungus)

They are called stinkhorns because, unlike most mushrooms that shed spores into the air for dispersal, these produce a sticky spore mass on their conical tip which produces a strong carrion-like odor. This attracts insects, particularly flies, which then help disperse the mushroom’s spores.

Flies, in this case a sarcophagid fly, are attracted by the putrescent odor produced by the slimy spore mass of Phallus indusiatus.

And for anyone wondering – yes they are edible! And no, I didn’t try it. They are apparently rich in protein, carbohydrates and dietary fibre, and are used in Chinese cuisine, particularly stir-fries and chicken soup. They are now grown commercially and are also used in Chinese medicine, containing various bioactive compounds as well as having antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.

Wikipedia has lots of interesting information, including on culinary aspects, folklore, chemistry and so on, and is well worth a  read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phallus_indusiatus

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