The Water-Borne Naturalist
Stinkhorns, Earthtongues and Dead-man's Fingers
By Tamia Nelson
article mentions a number of mushrooms and other fungi. Most are
inedible, and some can make you sickor even kill you. Do NOT eat,
or even taste, any of these fungi, and please do not collect them. Look
at them and photograph them and then leave them where they are. This
article is NOT a guide to edible mushrooms. If you'd like to gather
mushrooms for the table, get a good field guide and expert advice.
Remember, too, that even experts make mistakes, sometimes with fatal
results. What you don't know can kill you. It's not a chance
Something wicked this way comes. That memorable line from the
"Scottish play" rattled around unbidden in my mind while the sweet
stench of rotting flesh assailed my nose. Farwell answered my inquiring
look with an affirmative grunt. He sniffed the air with the studied
detachment of a wine waiter uncorking a new bottle. Then, to all
appearances fully content with the vintage, he nodded agreement and
returned to the picnic fare spread before us.
less easily satisfied, however. I got up from the granite outcrop that
served as our streamside table and walked through the bordering ferns
into the trees, quartering the gentle northerly breeze like a hound on
a scent. My nose soon led me to the source of the stench. It wasn't
what I'd expected to find. On the ground at my feet, thrusting up from
the soft, rotted wood that had once been a maple branch, I saw a bloody
finger. That was my first thought, at any rate. On second glance, it
looked more like a discarded tampon applicator, not as rare a sight in
the North Country woods as you might think. Still closer examination,
however, revealed the truth. The object of my search was a red-tipped,
spongy shaft, just about the same size as my little finger. A fungus of
some sort, I guessed. I called to Farwell.
He plodded over, sniffed, looked, and grunted again. "Stinkhorn," he
said. "I thought as much. There'll be more of them around."
There were. The forest floor beneath us was carpeted with stinkhorns
in all stages of growth and decay. Some were blackened and wizened.
Others were erect and pointing skyward. (Only later did I grasp the
significance of the Linnaean name, Mutinus elegans. Don't know
why it took me so long.) They all stank, but by this time I was getting
used to it. I fished out my sketchbook and made some pencilled notes,
while Farwell poked gently about in the forest litter, looking for
This wasn't the first time we'd gone fungus-chasing while on a
paddling outing. On one of our earliest canoe-camping trips together,
as we were walking along the tote road which parallels the aptly named
Rapid River between Lower Richardson and Umbagog Lakes, near the
Maine-New Hampshire border, Farwell suddenly and wordlessly darted off
into the surrounding pine woods. When I caught up with him, he was on
his hands and knees in the springy forest duff, staring intently at a
mushroom with a brilliant red-orange cap.
"A red mushroom," I thought. "It's pretty enough, to be sure.
Beautiful, in fact. But what's the big deal?" I said as much to
Farwell. He regarded me with a look that mixed equal parts of hurt and
exasperation. "This isn't just any mushroom," he said. "It's a
fly agaricAmanita muscariathe muk-a-moor of
the Siberian Korak."
didn't mean much to me at the time, I admit. "Huh?" was the best reply
I could make. No matter. Farwell saw his chance and seized it, losing
no time in explaining that the Korak (their name is also written Kerek
and Koryak) live between the Anadyr River and the Kamchatka Peninsula
in eastern Siberia. When George Kennan, the American journalist who
served as de facto press secretary in the McKinley
administration, was a young man, he had been hired by the
Russo-American Telegraph Company to survey a land route for a proposed
telegraph line from the Bering Strait to the mouth of the Amur
Riverright across the Korak homeland. The project was abandoned
shortly after the completion of the first successful transatlantic
cable in 1866, but by then Kennan had spent three years in Siberia,
"experienc[ing] in turn the pleasures and discomforts of whale boats,
horses, rafts, canoes, dog sledges, reindeer sledges, and snow shoes."
In the course of his travels, he learned of the muk-a-moor, a
"peculiar fungus" which, although "a violent narcotic poison" when
"taken in large quantities," produced only a pleasing intoxication in
Maybe so, but I have my doubts. Though I share Farwell's interest in
exploring the by-roads of history, neither he nor I was (or is)
inclined to experiment with strange fungi, however "pleasant" the
resulting intoxication is said to be. And a good thing, too, since
current evidence suggests that the North American fly agaric has rather
different pharmacological properties than its Siberian counterpart,
with the all-but-indistinguishable formosa variant being
especially toxic. Gathering wild mushrooms for the table involves risk
enough, thank you (see WARNING at the start of this article).
Experimenting with species known to be poisonous is a game for folks
who find Russian roulette too tameeven after they've placed a
live round in every chamber. It's not for me.
I still find fungi fascinating, however. Once, not so long ago, they
were lumped with the plants and relegated to second-class status
because they lacked chlorophyll and were therefore unable to synthesize
sugars. Now the fungi are recognized as a biological kingdom in their
own right and given equal billing with green plants and animals.
They're also among the world's largest and oldest organisms. One honey
mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae) in eastern Oregon's Malheur
National Forest extends over 2,200 acresthat's nearly three and
one-half square milesand is at least 2,400 years old. It may well
be two or even three times this old, in fact!
I hope you're not envisioning a toadstool covering 2,200 acres,
though. The familiar mushroom is just the fruiting body of a fungus,
and its smallest and most ephemeral part by far. The bulk of the
organismthe myceliumis made up of minute, nearly invisible
filaments, or hyphae. These hyphae extend throughout the forest duff,
infiltrating organic detritus and wrapping themselves around the tiny
root hairs of trees. Since they can't make their own food as green
plants do, fungi live by scavenging. Along with bacteria, fungi are
nature's recyclers, liberating nutrients trapped in dead organic matter
and making them available to living things again. As such, they play an
essential, if little-appreciated, role in maintaining the health of the
world's forest ecosystems.
So important are fungi, in fact, that many trees can only thrive in
partnership with them. The fungal partner in such marriages of
convenienceprosaic botanists understandably prefer the phrase
"mycorrhizal associations"effectively extends its host's root
system, improving the tree's ability to take up mineral nutrients,
while increasing its resistance to disease and its capacity to
withstand droughts. In return, the fungus dines at its host's expense,
levying a tax in the form of synthesized carbohydrates. Nor are such
symbiotic partnerships limited to trees alone. Nearly all green plants
benefit from mycorrhizal associations, and there's growing evidence
that fungi preceded plants onto the earth's land masses, preparing the
ground for the subsequent green invasion.
Still, most of us see mushrooms primarily as decorative
embellishments in a forest landscape dominated by trees and other green
plants. And there's nothing wrong with that. In just a few minutes, as
Farwell and I quartered the ground around the scattered stinkhorns
whose rank scent lured me away from our picnic, we turned up a dozen
different species: shelf-like bracket fungi (including the aptly-named
turkeytail polypore, Coriolus versicolor), several types of
puffball, grotesque clumps of dead-man's fingers (Xylaria
polymorpha), and clusters of black, velvety spear-points, which
turned out to be black earthtongues (Geoglossum nigritum).
We could easily have spent hours more, but just as I stopped to make
a quick drawing of the earthtongues, a fat raindrop plopped onto my
sketchbook. Time to go. Stuffing my field guide into one thigh pocket
of my cargo pants and my sketchbook in the other, I raced back to our
picnic site. Farwell was already bundling up our gear. As I was getting
into my canoe, however, one last mushroom caught my eyein a most
A red squirrel was scampering up an ancient white pine at the
water's edge. In his mouth was a large, rose-colored mushroom. I
recognized it without my field guide: it was a graying red russula
(Russula vinosa). High over my head, the squirrel sped along a
branch and thrust the mushroom onto a splintered stub left behind by
some past windstorm. Only then did I notice that there were other
mushrooms in the pine, all skewered on splinters or tucked into the
crotches of living branches. Farwell and I obviously weren't the only
folks out hunting mushrooms that afternoon. The squirrel neither knew
nor cared about the names we gave to our quarry, of course. Come some
frigid day in mid-winter, he'll fill his belly with dried mushroom
without regard for taxonomic niceties. I doubt that his satisfaction
will be any the less for all that.
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