Beatrix Potter could not find the courage to draw one. Charles Darwin’s daughter Etty destroyed all the specimens she could find, “lest they corrupt the morals of the maids.” Visit the old Reykjavík cemetery this fall, and you’ll probably find several of the phallic-looking objects in question thrusting up from the ground and smelling like ripe carrion.
Oh well, you might think, at least they died happy.
The presumably happy objects are fungi rather than the virile members of dead male Icelanders. Specifically, they’re fungi that have the not inappropriate Latin name of Phallus impudicus. The Icelandic name, ‘fylubollur,’ is just as appropriate—it means “stinky male genitals.” The English name is Common Stinkhorn.
The Common Stinkhorn is not common in Iceland. Indeed, the only place where it’s been documented is the old Reykjavík cemetery. Fear not: it’s not interfering with the eternal rest of a prominent Icelander by digesting him or her. Rather, it’s digesting wood chips and woody debris in the vicinity of the graves.
The stinkhorn starts as a white entity known as an egg. At the right time, the egg will break with a sound that French botanist Jean Bulliard compared to a pistol shot, and then the phallic part will emerge. In an hour or two, the fungus will reach full height. Reputedly, its growth is so dramatic that it can lift up 150 kg of asphalt.
The carrion-like smell comes from the gleba, a coating of green mucus at the top of the fungus. This smell, which is usually offensive to people, is irresistible to flies. And that’s the point: the gleba houses the fungus’ spores. Flies land on it and either eat the spores or carry them off on their feet, thus creating the possibility of another stinkhorn generation.
The first Icelandic stinkhorns were documented as recently as 1990. But the species has existed elsewhere for millennia. In Europe, it was believed to have aphrodisiac powers, giving the men who ate it powerful erections. It was also used to cure rheumatism, epilepsy, gout, and skin cancer. In certain tropical countries, the gleba was spread on young women on the assumption that it would make them fertile.
But I don’t recommend that you collect the fungus for any of the aforementioned reasons. Nor do I recommend that you collect it so that you can show it to your friends and have them say “gross.” Instead, simply admire it. And let it continue its life as a citizen in good standing (so to speak) in Reykjavik’s oldest cemetery.