One of the great things about blogging is that what you write persists over time and is available to anyone, anywhere with access to the internet. I have recently had a comment on a blog I wrote back in June 2015 about the common basket stinkhorn Ileodictyon cibarium. Dael Xo wrote:
I live in the south east suburbs of Melbourne and my garden is FULL of them! they are the most incredible fungus I have ever encountered. I wish I could find more information about them. Are they harmful to my plants and shallow root structure my current garden contains? Are they good for my soil if I leave them to compost back through? Should I be removing them or keeping them? If they are bad, how do I get rid of them safely? So many questions but I can’t help but watch them and examine them.
So, I thought I try to answer the questions Dael asked.
Are they harmful to my plants? That’s an easy one, No! The basket stinkhorn is a decay fungus so it is rotting the leaf litter and mulch that is in your garden. The more leaf litter and much the more of like you are to have this fungus and other decay fungi fruiting in your garden. They are part of the natural nutrient cycle breaking dead plant material down into its chemical components so that they can be used again plants.
Are they good for my soil if I leave them to compost back through? Yes! Not only are they returning nutrients to the soil but they are part of your gardens ecosystem and the breakdown of the fungus is feed a range of insects that will benefit your soil.
Should I be removing them or keeping them? You should keep them. They are a native organism, and you should encourage them and enjoy them.
So many questions. Well, I don’t know what your questions are but let me tell you about the stuff I know about.
The common basket stinkhorn occurs throughout New Zealand, the east coast of Australia but particularly the southeast, and Tasmania. It has been recorded in South Africa and Chile and has probably been introduced. It is also known in and around London in the UK where it is again introduced. Late last year (November 2020) it turned up in the Sheffield Botanical Gardens growing in the New Zealand plant section! Was this just a coincidence?
Those of you who follow this blog know I like to dig into New Zealand’s mycological history and William Colenso wrote about the basket stinkhorn in 1892 describing the explosive expansion of the basket from the egg:
“But its curious history has yet to be told. It was late in the autumn (May), when I was in a grassy spot on the confines of a small retired wood (whither I had often been in former years), when on seating myself on a dead prostrate tree I noticed two or three common specimens of I.cibarium showing themselves among the low herbage; I collected them. On looking more closely I saw an olive-coloured egg-shaped fungoid substance peering up from the ground underneath a thick branch of the tree on which I was sitting, apparently as if it were pressed down by the branch. I broke the branch off carefully, when the egg-like substance rapidly burst open, and up sprang this fine specimen as if forcibly ejected by a spring, unfolding itself immediately to its full size. Its sudden and unexpected movement startled me ; but after admiring this wondrous production of Nature, and its astonishing internal powers,-seeing, too, it was but a weak and flimsy tender substance without nerves, I brought it carefully away in my handkerchief, and, after washing it with a feather in repeated waters (to remove its copious brownish slime of a most disagreeable odour, which is common to them all, including the closely-allied and handsome genus Aseroe), I dried it, and its volva or case, as a good specimen.”
Colenso also talked about the edibility of this fungus:
“As before stated by me … these fungi while in their young, unbroken egg-like condition were formerly eaten by Maori; in that state they have none of the offensive ill-odour that pertains only to the fully-expanded pileus, and which is confined to the thick brownish slime with which it is covered: the difference is just that between a fresh-laid and an addled egg.”
According to Robert Vennell at The Meaning of Trees Māori would eat the thick gooey shell before the basket bursts out and develops a layer of stinky slime. It could be roasted in the ashes of a fire, or cooked in hāngī. The gooey shell is well illustrated in this Wikipedia photo:
There are at least 35 te reo Māori names for the basket stinkhorn around Aotearoa. These names can be highly localised as is reported in this 2018 Hawkes Bay Today story on basket stinkhorn in the town of Waipukurau. It says that in Pat Parsons’ book Waipukurau: The History of a Country Town, before eating them, Māori would first soak the fungus, known locally as pukurau, in a pool belonging to an ancestor, Ruakuha, located near the old Waipukurau Pā site. So, the town’s name Waipukurau is an abbreviation of Te Waipukurau a Ruakuha, and waipukurau means “waters of the pukurau” as pukurau grew abundantly beside the Tukituki River which flows past the town and pā site. I wonder how many towns in the world are named after a fungus.