Worlds Within Worlds in Our Gardens
by Jane Berger
“Come up front when you're finished back here,” said my husband Thom. “I want you to take a look at something. I've never seen anything like it.”
The first photo shows what I saw: three life stages of the Clathrus ruber, a species of fungus in the family Phallaceae and the genus Clathrus, also commonly knownas the basket or latticed stinkhorn mushroom. It has a world-wide distribution, especially in tropical regions. Although known for their foul-smelling spore masses (gleba) on the end of a stalk (receptaculum) we didn't notice any odor. My jaw was too busy dropping in amazement at these other-worldly looking mushrooms.
The immature form featured in the second photo appears as a whitish egg-shaped mass. At this stage, they are said to be edible, but I had no interest in trying it. The egg has a delicate, leathery outer membrane that surrounds the layer of spore-bearing slime which contains high levels of calcium that help protect the fruit body during development. Its foul odor attracts flies and other insects which eat the slimy spore-containing matter at the tips to help distribute the fungus. Clathrus ruber is also introduced into the garden in soils and mulches that contain microscopic hyphae (fungal threads) of stinkhorn fungi.
The photo that looks like a colored wiffle ball or a dog's toy is a mature fruit body, extremely delicate and short-lived. The fungus is saprobic, meaning that it feeds off decaying woody plant matter, in our case, the debris from the giant Sequoias on our small property. Without a stomach, fungi must digest their food before it can go through cell walls into the hyphae. This way the Clathrus ruber contributes to the recycling of plant debris into soil nutrients. Clathrus ruber does not cause plant disease.
The last photo shows how all of the forms looked as they matured and then faded back into the duff. Fungi are not plants; they used to be listed in the Plant Kingdom until scientists learned fungi show a closer relation to animals and are separate life forms. They now have their own kingdom.
What a fascinating journey through the worlds contained within a garden!
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Photo credits: Jane Berger