Wild Ideas: Fall’s progress brings surprises  

As fall progresses, I’ve been noting changes and have run into a few surprises.

Last Thursday (Nov. 1), I heard my first white-throated sparrow since this species left to breed up north in the spring. A few days later, a small flock was flitting around in the forest edge behind my house.

On Friday, I noted a few asters were still blooming down around the ponds, while others are apparently done for the year. Up the mountain, where I live, a few meadow phlox blooms were also hanging in there in my gardens but had gone to seed a couple of days later.

Late-blooming asters continue to attract pollinators in early November By Pam Owen
With mild fall weather, a few meadow phlox continue to bloom into November By Pam Owen

Most of the year, great blue herons have been visiting the ponds, especially the stocked trout pond, looking for fish and aquatic amphibians. Bears and other hunters and scavengers also show up. Now we have — not for the first time — a bald eagle working that pond. My landlords set up an automated trail cam down there and, along with night shots of a raccoon, an opossum and a domestic cat, they also got photos of the eagle and a crow eating remains of fish during the day.

A trail cam catches a bald eagle eating the remains of a trout at Skyline Trout Farm, near Sperryville By Tom Johnson

I was a bit surprised to find an eastern comma butterfly warming up on a bench next to my house on Saturday, when the temperature was hovering around 50 degrees. Its varied diet, which does not rely on flower nectar, is the main reason this species can be active from early spring to late fall — sometimes even appearing during warm spells in the dead of winter.

With a mix of mild and chilly weather and intermittent rain, I’ve been looking for more mushrooms around the pond and in the forest further up the mountain since the first crop I saw early this fall disappeared but wasn’t having any luck. Most fall mushrooms finish blooming by mid-fall, depending on the weather, so I had little hope of finding any.

On Saturday, with rain forecast, I had thrown a tarp over the woodpile behind my house to keep it dry, knowing the saturated soil under it would likely thwart that effort. When I pulled it off the next day, I found at least four species of mushrooms had popped up around most of the perimeter of the pallet holding the wood, with a few still emerging from the dead leaves and rotting wood there.

Most of the ’shrooms looked familiar, but a striking new one caught my eye. It was about 3 inches tall, with an olive-green, knobbish head and a thick, spongy white stalk with a hole in the top. I figured it was in the Phallus genus, named for the appearance of mushrooms in the genus. It’s the first one I’ve seen in the flesh, so to speak.

I left the tarp off overnight, and the next day the head seemed to be lightening and exuding a funky smell, as mushrooms in this genus doing, giving the genus its common name, stinkhorn. Working my way through the species key at Michael Cuo’s Mushroom Expert website, I tentatively concluded the ’shroom in question was a Phallus impudicus (common stinkhorn), impudicus being Latin for “shameless.”

A stinkhorn mushroom attracts insects to help spread its spores by giving off a funky odor and offering a sugary meal By pa

The fruiting body of this species arises out of an egg-like structure with several layers. It shoots up at a speed and height that is amazing, which accounts for why I hadn’t noticed it before I put the tarp on. In the “egg” stage, this species is edible, according to “Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians,” by William C. Roody.

At some point, the sugary slime that covers the mushroom’s outer layer and contains the fungus’ spores gives off a malodorous aroma, the source of its common name. The smell attracts insects, which, after chowing down, carry the spores off on their feet, spreading the species to other places. Although I didn’t notice any smell, I did see a few ants were already at work on the mushroom.

The next day, after a night of heavy rain, the green on the mushroom was almost gone, exposing a shallowly pitted white layer underneath, and now I could definitely detect a pungent odor coming from the ’shroom. The smell has been described many ways, including “potent,” “fetid” and resembling that of carrion. Personally, I found it funky but not that offensive, although the smell was hard to wash off. Despite the light rain that was still falling, the odor was attracting small flies along with the ants I’d seen the day before. A combination of rain and insects probably accounted for the disappearing olive layer that carried the spores.

Cuo notes that the common stinkhorn is often mistaken for a yellow morel by morel hunters looking for morels in summer. But they are “hunting with their hearts instead of their minds,” he adds. “The season alone (to say nothing of the presence of stinky slime and the underground ‘egg’) should serve to separate the stinkhorn,” he points out. “Morels don’t grow in summer . . . and ‘de Nile’ is not just a river in Egypt.”

This stinkhorn usually blooms from late summer to at least the end of October. Once it bursts out of its “egg,” it can grow incredibly fast, sometimes reaching the form I found it in within an hour or two. It can grow to as much as 10 inches within several hours. The one I found was only about 3 inches, but being covered with the tarp could have limited its growth. (See time-lapse photography of a common stinkhorn coming up at HowStuffWorks).

A few new mushrooms of other species were popping up around the perimeter of the wood pile. In lifting a board I use to hold down the tarp, I found a tangled mat of white, filamentous fungi. In the hopes of seeing more mushrooms, I left the tarp off.

© 2018 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”