Mutinus elegans (Mont.) E. Fisch.
Elegant stinkhorn, dog stinkhorn, headless stinkhorn, devil’s dipstick
Mutinus elegans was first described by British missionary John Banister in 1679. He chronicled the natural history of Virginia. His early report is thought to be the first account of a fungus in North America. These stinkhorns are native to Europe, Japan, and eastern North America, from Canada to Florida, and west to the Great Lakes and Iowa.
Plants and fungi have evolved many unusual approaches to reproducing themselves, and stinkhorns have to be among the finalists. The top of each fruiting body is covered with a slimy mass that smells foul, described in some references as sickly sweet or metallic. (Other stinkhorns smell much worse though.) The odor attracts flies and other insects, which pick up spores embedded in the slime and spread them widely. Sometimes stinkhorns gross out homeowners by appearing on lawns—see, for example, Nastiest. Mushroom. Ever. They are saprobic, decomposing dead wood, and hence may appear in gardens, mulched landscaping, meadows, wood chips, lawns, and hardwood forests.
Identification: Fruiting bodies are spike-like in appearance, 1½-7" (4-17 cm) high and ⅛-½" (5-15 mm) around, gradually tapering toward the top and usually slightly curved. The stalk is orange, red-orange, or pink; except for the top third, which would be too if it weren’t covered with a thick malodorous spore-infused olive-brown slime. The mushrooms fruit from Jul-Sep. The fruiting body starts as a small white or pinkish puffball-like “egg” ⅜-¾" (1-2 cm) around, partly buried; it may take up to two weeks for the stalk to appear. If you have a microscope handy, spores are 4-7 × 2-3 µ in size.
The similar “dog stinkhorn” (Mutinus caninus) is smaller, has a distinct oval or spindle-shaped tip on a slender stem, and lacks the bright coloring of M. elegans; it has less of the stalk covered by gleba.
Edibility: Technically at least, the small egg-shaped mass that appears prior to the formation of the stalk is said to edible. Seriously. I can state with some authority that I will not be checking this theory out, and at least one source says “not recommended.”
Mutinus elegans description by Thomas H. Kent, last updated 25 May 2020.