There will be some mycophiles who might read this blog and rightfully shake their heads in disgust. The controversy that surrounds the species Dictyophora indusiata is a little ludicrous, to be sure, but I simply can’t help but discuss it because it’s also hilarious and I sincerely hope that the qualities assigned to dictyophora are real. That said, you might want to approach this somewhat like an Onion article, dear reader (in terms of the veracity of content, not quality of humor mind you), and to be aware that there are many people who are rightfully skeptical of the miraculous properties of dictyophora. In fact, a friend of mine who will remain anonymous gets furious whenever dictyophora is mentioned; he strongly believes it’s a cruel joke on female mushroom hunters, and when I first asked him about it he got genuinely upset. Another mushroom nut I know, who is a bit less sensitive, simply dismissed the dictyophora theory as “poppycock”. So there you go, maybe a helping or two of salt is in order.
I first heard about dictyophora from Damian Pack. Several years ago, he attended a mushroom conference, and one of the lectures was given by Dr. Holliday, a mycologist who co-authored an article about dictyophora in the Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms in 2001. Dr. Holladay specializes in tropical and equatorial fungi, and one of the species that he supposedly encountered was an infamous sub-species or strain of Dictyophora indusiata in Hawaii. This species was also the topic of his lecture, and Damian was stunned when Dr. Holliday stood in front of the group and proclaimed that this mushroom exudes a pheromonal odor that can trigger human female orgasm. He noted that in a trial where women and men were asked to sniff the mushroom, 100% of female respondents noted that the smell made them feel aroused, and 6 out of the 16 female participants experienced sexual climax. He also explained the history of dictyophora in indigenous Hawaiian culture: apparently for generations, women have been aware of the arousing potency of dictyophora, and finding them and smelling them is apparently quite the tradition.
Dictyophora is an aptly named fungus for several reasons. Like a couple other related genera (Phallus in particular), dictyophora mushrooms look a whole lot like penises. They also grow amazingly fast once they pop, and can reach full bloom over the course of 45 minutes or so, and tend to use olfactory stimulation to spread their spores. The common octopus stinkhorn, a relative of Dictyophora indusiata, starts as a rubbery white egg with a warren of gelatinous pockets inside. It’s not bad to eat, though I am not terribly fond of the texture. Once the egg opens, however, the fungus expands into a bright red fruiting body that is somewhat round, and is made up of interlocking fibers of tissue that makes it look something like a fungal jungle gym. It also smells strongly of poop. This strange fruiting body attracts flies using its pungent scent, and the insects bang against the octopoid branches of the mushroom, knocking free spores that drift off, cling to the fly’s body, or are otherwise ejected into the biosphere. There are many fungi that reproduce more or less like this; stinkhorns do come in all shapes and colors, and grow all over the world. One species I saw from Missouri looked like thin, lime green tongues with sticky pink tips. I will not tell you what my imagination did with that, but they are very suggestive in a totally gross sort of way.
Anyway, so there is this growing body of knowledge about stinkhorns and their allied species, and Dr. Holliday was one of the experts. Damian described him as a serious, dry fellow who didn’t seem to be at all self-conscious about his discovery, or it’s middle school locker room nomenclature. However, there was an eruption of hilarity and some outrage from the audience at the conference, and after the lecture people’s tongues really started to wag. Damian said he tried not to get caught up in the “mushroom drama”, but it was clear that some people were really excited about the idea of a female aphrodisiac being isolated in nature, whereas others were angry. Those in the latter camp were upset for two reasons. First, if Holliday’s presentation was just an elaborate fabrication, it was a serious waste of everyone’s time and a disservice to the pursuit of mycological research. Second, and perhaps more personal, was the implication for those who bought into the notion and went hunting dictyophora. Since dictyophora has a series of look alike species that ALSO have an aroma (the aforementioned poop smell that gives stinkhorns their name), there were some folks who suspected that Dr. Holliday was trying to trick people into hunting and smelling stinkhorns in the hopes of getting their rocks off. Now, it might sound silly to get angry about something like this, but I must assure you that the stench of the stinkhorn is truly spectacular. The friend I mentioned who is a Holliday-hater took me out mushrooming the afternoon we first discussed dictyophora, and as we walked past a landscaped bed of roses and rhodies, I caught a whiff of something nasty. My buddy pointed out the striking octopoid spheres.
“Smell one,” he suggested.
“I’m not sure I want to,” I replied, eyeing the mushrooms dubiously.
“Well you should at least smell it once. Here.” He picked a piece and handed it to me and I, ever trusting, took a big noseful of one of the most unpleasant odors I’ve ever encountered. I didn’t gag, but it was a near miss.
“Now you know why I’m pissed about dictyophora,” my friend said flatly. “Imagine going to Ecquador or Guatemala and hunting for mushrooms in the buggiest, most dangerous spots on earth, and having to smell each and every stinkhorn you find. Talking people into doing that is just plain mean.”
I nodded and tried to rub the stench out of my nose.
At the end of the day, I will say I am not totally convinced that Holliday’s theory is a hoax. Damian told me that he visited Holliday some time after the uproar at the conference where the idea was first presented, and Holliday insisted that it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective for dictyophora to use pungent smells to reproduce. After all, the subterranean truffle has volatile oils that are very closely related to human and pig pheromones, which is one way the fungus attracts attention and gets help spreading its spores. Given the scent-producing strategies of other stinkhorns, it is also possible that at some point in evolutionary history, the chemical mix that makes certain dictyophora smell sexy came about. Furthermore, Damian told me he was impressed by the plaintive tone Dr. Holliday adopted when discussing his discovery; the good doctor was flustered at the negative attention, and wondered aloud why he would put his academic reputation on the line for a stupid joke. Although I wasn’t there, I can see that: the mycological community is small, and one of the primary offenses is messing up the taxonomy of mushrooms— since we’re so far from classifying all that’s out there, it’s considered crass and unthinkable to make the task even harder by introducing ill thought out theories and ideas.
I do know that since I have a rather tragically infantile sense of humor, I think that dictyophora is funny. I will not be hunting them anytime soon, nor do I think I could be convinced to smell another stinkhorn in this lifetime, but it’s a fun bit of trivia.