August 2016

Beautiful but smelly

I have loads of these things popping up in the garden.  I suspect it is not a plant but a fungus. Can you tell me what it is?

Answer

These bright red fungi with star-like arms and a hollow stem up to 10 centimetres tall seem to pop up overnight. And they really stink, thanks to a coating of putrid brown slime. The smelly goo containing the spores is eagerly sought by flies. Photo courtesy of Mark Piper. Aseroe rubra. Photo courtesy of Steve Wilson.

Brisbane’s wet winter weather has heralded the emergence of unusual star-like fungi which are popping up in our parks, gardens and bushland. Bright red, and shaped like a crazy starfish on a stalk, they seem to appear overnight, remain a few days then vanish.

Starfish or Anemone Fungi (Aseroe rubra) begin as egg-like structures partly buried beneath the soil. They open to form hollow white stalks up to 10 centimetres high, which develop six to ten red arms.

The Starfish fungus belongs to a group called stinkhorns. The various species can be phallic shaped, have a net-like structure or radiating arms. Many are brightly coloured.

Stink horns are certainly well-named. Unlike many flowers that produce fragrant aromas and sweet nectar rewards to lure pollenating insects, stinkhorns emit the foul odour of faeces or rotting flesh. Their putrid stench comes in the form of gooey slime called ‘gleba’. This is actually the spore-bearing mass, and its role is to attract flies which feed on it and disperse the spores.

The Starfish fungus prefers compost and organically rich soils, and often appears in newly mulched garden beds and wood-chips. It is widespread in eastern Australia, from south-eastern Queensland to Tasmania and eastern South Australia.

Is it poisonous? It is highly unlikely that any sensible person would seriously consider eating one of these smelly fungi and there are no known cases of human consumption. However deaths of small dogs are recorded and the fungi are believed to contain irritant toxins. If ingestion is suspected, medical help should be urgently sought.

Aseroe rubra was the first Australian fungus to be formally described, based on specimens collected in southern Tasmania in 1800.

While the Queensland Museum always welcomes natural history observations, the appropriate organisation to deal with plant and fungus enquiries is the Queensland Herbarium. Their phone number is (07) 3896 9326.

Queensland Museum's Find out about... is proudly supported by the Thyne Reid Foundation and the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation.