The Dictyophora Indusiata Mushroom Debate – A Natural Aphrodisiac?

There will be some mycophiles who might read this blog and rightfully shake their heads in disgust. The controversy that surrounds the species Dictyophora indusiata (which is a sort of stink horn mushroom) is a little ludicrous, to be sure, but I simply can’t help but discuss it because it’s also hilarious and I sincerely hope that the qualities assigned to dictyophora indusiata mushrooms are real. That said, you might want to approach this somewhat like an Onion article, dear reader (in terms of the veracity of content, not quality of humor mind you), and be aware that there are many people who are rightfully skeptical of the miraculous properties of dictyophora. In fact, a friend of mine who will remain anonymous gets furious whenever dictyophora indusiata mushrooms are mentioned; he strongly believes it’s a cruel joke on female mushroom hunters, and when I first asked him about it he got genuinely upset. Another mushroom nut I know, who is a bit less sensitive, simply dismissed the dictyophora indusiata mushroom theory as “poppycock”. So there you go, maybe a helping or two of salt is in order.

Dictyophora indusiata
Dictyophora indusiata John Hill Creative Commons – Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

I first heard about Dictyophora indusiata mushrooms from Damian Pack. Several years ago, he attended a mushroom conference, and one of the lectures was given by Dr. Holliday, a mycologist who co-authored an article about dictyophora in the Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms in 2001. Dr. Holladay specializes in tropical and equatorial fungi, and one of the species that he supposedly encountered was an infamous sub-species or strain of Dictyophora indusiata in Hawaii. This species was also the topic of his lecture, and Damian was stunned when Dr. Holliday stood in front of the group and proclaimed that this mushroom exudes a pheromonal odor that can trigger human female orgasm.

He noted that in a trial where women and men were asked to sniff the Dictyophora indusiata mushroom, 100% of female respondents noted that the smell made them feel aroused, and 6 out of the 16 female participants experienced sexual climax. He also explained the history of Dictyophora in indigenous Hawaiian culture: apparently for generations, women have been aware of the arousing potency of Dictyophora, and finding them and smelling them is apparently quite the tradition.

Dictyophora is an aptly named fungus for several reasons. Like a couple other related genera (Phallus in particular), Dictyophora indusiata mushrooms look a whole lot like penises. They also grow amazingly fast once they pop, and can reach full bloom over the course of 45 minutes or so, and tend to use olfactory stimulation to spread their spores.

The common octopus stinkhorn, a relative of Dictyophora indusiata mushrooms, starts as a rubbery white egg with a warren of gelatinous pockets inside. It’s not bad to eat, though I am not terribly fond of the texture. Once the egg opens, however, the fungus expands into a bright red fruiting body that is made up of interlocking fibers of tissue that look like a fungal tentacles. It also smells strongly of poop.

Octopus stinkhorn
Octopus stinkhorn Utilisateur:Bouba Creative Commons – Attribution ShareAlike 2.5

This strange fruiting body attracts flies using its pungent scent, and the insects bang against the octopoid branches of the mushroom, knocking free spores that drift off, cling to the fly’s body, or are otherwise ejected into the biosphere. There are many fungi that reproduce more or less like this; stinkhorns do come in all shapes and colors, and grow all over the world. One species I saw from Missouri looked like thin, lime green tongues with sticky pink tips. I will not tell you what my imagination did with that, but they are very suggestive in a totally gross sort of way.

Anyway, so there is this growing body of knowledge about stinkhorns and their allied species, and Dr. Holliday was one of the experts. Damian described him as a serious, dry fellow who didn’t seem to be at all self-conscious about his discovery, or it’s middle school locker room nomenclature. However, there was an eruption of hilarity and some outrage from the audience at the conference, and after the lecture people’s tongues really started to wag.

Damian said he tried not to get caught up in the “mushroom drama”, but it was clear that some people were really excited about the idea of a female aphrodisiac being isolated in nature, whereas others were angry. Those in the latter camp were upset for two reasons. First, if Holliday’s presentation was just an elaborate fabrication, it was a serious waste of everyone’s time and a disservice to the pursuit of mycological research.

Second, and perhaps more personal, was the implication for those who bought into the notion and went hunting dictyophora. Since Dictyophora indusiata mushrooms have a series of look alike species that ALSO have an aroma (the aforementioned poop smell that gives stinkhorns their name), there were some folks who suspected that Dr. Holliday was trying to trick people into hunting and smelling stinkhorns in the hopes of getting their rocks off. Now, it might sound silly to get angry about something like this, but I must assure you that the stench of the stinkhorn is truly spectacular. The friend I mentioned who is a Holliday-hater took me out mushrooming the afternoon we first discussed Dictyophora indusiata mushrooms, and as we walked past a landscaped bed of roses and rhodies, I caught a whiff of something nasty. My buddy pointed out the striking octopoid spheres.

“Smell one,” he suggested.
“I’m not sure I want to,” I replied, eyeing the mushrooms dubiously.
“Well you should at least smell it once. Here.” He picked a piece and handed it to me and I, ever trusting, took a big noseful of one of the most unpleasant odors I’ve ever encountered. I didn’t gag, but it was a near miss.
“Now you know why I’m pissed about Dictyophora,” my friend said flatly. “Imagine going to Ecquador or Guatemala and hunting for mushrooms in the buggiest, most dangerous spots on earth, and having to smell each and every stinkhorn you find. Talking people into doing that is just plain mean.”
I nodded and tried to rub the stench out of my nose.

At the end of the day, I will say I am not totally convinced that Holliday’s theory is a hoax. Damian told me that he visited Holliday some time after the uproar at the conference where the idea was first presented, and Holliday insisted that it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective for dictyophora to use pungent smells to reproduce. After all, the subterranean truffle has volatile oils that are very closely related to human and pig pheromones, which is one way the fungus attracts attention and gets help spreading its spores.

Given the scent-producing strategies of other stinkhorns, it is also possible that at some point in evolutionary history, the chemical mix that makes certain dictyophora smell sexy came about. Furthermore, Damian told me he was impressed by the plaintive tone Dr. Holliday adopted when discussing his discovery; the good doctor was flustered at the negative attention, and wondered aloud why he would put his academic reputation on the line for a stupid joke. Although I wasn’t there, I can see that: the mycological community is small, and one of the primary offenses is messing up the taxonomy of mushrooms— since we’re so far from classifying all that’s out there, it’s considered crass and unthinkable to make the task even harder by introducing ill thought out theories and ideas.

I do know that since I have a rather tragically infantile sense of humor, I think that dictyophora is funny. I will not be hunting them anytime soon, nor do I think I could be convinced to smell another stinkhorn in this lifetime, but it’s a fun bit of trivia.


21 thoughts on “The Dictyophora Indusiata Mushroom Debate – A Natural Aphrodisiac?”

  1. Hi Anna,
    There are no dates on your blog entries, so I cannot tell which year you wrote this.

    I have never believed this preposterous theory. I recently (July, 2015) obtained a copy of Holliday’s full paper, and I can assure you that the evidence, as presented, was wholly unconvincing. No reputable journal would have published that crap: zero references for statements made, no detailing of study protocol, conclusions made without verification of results. In other words, garbage science, if you can even call it science at all. Another hidden factoid regarding that paper, confessed to me by Holliday (who sent me a copy of his paper), was that the “research” was funded by a local Pharmaceutical company, that hoped to market any discovered “aphrodisiacs.” This fact was also not cited in the publication, a huge breach of science vs business etiquette, altho it was hardly science, so maybe medicinal mushroom people play by different rules?

    AS to the “corroborating fact” of male pig pheromones (alpha-androstenol, to be exact), in Perigord truffles attracting “only” female pigs, it turns out that there are over 200 aromatic compounds found in black truffles, and only one is responsible for the attraction of mammalian foragers, specifically tested on pigs and dogs: Dimethyl sulfide. Pure extracts of alpha-androstenol were ignored by both groups of animals. This was shown in real science, and is widely available online, open access. And all sorts of animals of all sexes dig and eat up truffles, from pigs to bears to squirrels to mice to deer. Insects too, of course, but they target different odors in the same fungus; lots and lots to choose from!

    Holliday may well believe his own BS, but that doesn’t make it good science or true.

    Just like you, I have smelled stinkhorns, and there is absolutely NOTHING sexy about them, unless you are deeply into necrophilia! 😉

    This is a truly vile, and even a bit sexist myth.

    BTW, the “good doctor” as you refer to him is not a doctor, and his reputation had nothing to lose. Good PR for a businessman looking to sell his medicinal mushroom wares, though. I agree with the folks in that second batch of conference attendees that you cited above: the perpetuation of this myth and the flimsy basis for its acceptance diminishes all of us.

    It does make a great story to tell around a drunken campfire, though. Right up there with the hooked killer that lurks at Lovers Lane, and just about as believable.

    Yours in Mycological Truth,

    Debbie Viess
    Bay Area Mycological Society
    http://www.bayareamushrooms.org

    1. Thanks for the clarification Debbie, especially about the truffles. This piece was written not too terribly long ago, although with this new insight I plan to revise the bit about truffles for further clarification to readers. For that, I sincerely thank you! Also, as for the Holladay story, I agree it stinks to high heaven (no pun intended), but I had not known the details of who funded the research and so forth; it was something that came up from time to time in my conversations with different mycophiles, and on the whole only one person with whom I discussed it was convinced that it was even close to true. In any event I do appreciate the feedback with regards to both these issues, it’s always a delight to get input from those who “were there” in a more meaningful sense than I!

    2. Does anyone still have access to the original article? The subject seems to have gone viral (again?) today [Oct 13 2015], and I’m unable to access it via the original site. Does the paper have a doi address?

      Thanks!

    3. Debbie, would you be able to comment on Halliday’s article for The Huffington Post? Or may I quote this comment on the story I’m working on that looks into the debunking of this now viral topic?

      You can reach me at carla [dot] herreria [at] huffingtonpost [dot] com.

      Carla Herreria

  2. Try writing the author directly. That’s what I did, and he sent me a copy.

    He may be reluctant to do so again, however, since it is an embarrassment that I certainly wouldn’t want to have floating around on the internet for all to read!

    Otherwise, it’s just the abstract for you!

    Sad and a slow news week if folks are still beating this dead horse. Sex and misogyny, always timely topics, regardless of truth base!

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