Are They Tricks, or Are They Treats?

An unidentified mushroom in decline

The piney woods of east Texas can be lovely — as dark and deep in autumn as Robert Frost’s winter woods — but there are strange things happening out there.

When I came across this slick, glistening mushroom on an early morning walk, the flies exploring its surface certainly didn’t add to its appeal. Part of the genus known as Ormia, the flies parasitize crickets or just wander around, noshing on decaying material on the forest floor. 

The mushroom itself seemed to be melting away — rather like the famous cake Richard Harris left out in the rain in his version of the Jimmy Webb song titled “MacArthur Park.” Still, weird as the mushroom was, and odd as its ability to evoke Harris’s recording might be, there are even weirder — no, spookier — fungi lurking about.

Just in time for Halloween, we have this time-lapse video of the Devil’s Fingers fungus. Shot by Belgian photographer Kris Van de Sande, the video captures the life cycle of Clathrus archeri.

Hatching from an egg-like shell, the fungus develops four to eight ‘arms’ which seem to beckon to unwary hikers. Black spores, scattered across its reddish skin, exude an odor that helps to explain its second common name: octopus stinkhorn.

If you’re one who favors a little scare on Halloween, forget the haunted house or the horror movie. Nature has a treat for you — just don’t take it home and add it to your stash of candy.


Comments always are welcome.


54 thoughts on “Are They Tricks, or Are They Treats?

    1. But it’s deliciously creepy, wouldn’t you say? The descriptions of it remind me of the so-called corpse flower, that also exudes the scent of death. We had one here in Houston a few years ago, and I see that there’s a time lapse video of one of this year’s blooms, too.

  1. They grow very fast. It is Halloween here tonight too. I have the celery stalks nicely watered and arranged in an iced-water container. Last year, not many kids seemed fond on them!
    I used to pick the mushrooms ( The chanterelle with the serrated edges) in Northern Italy. Buckets of them. We had so much we dried them on newspapers outside in the sun, for a soup later on.

    1. I don’t have a clue whether you’re serious about those celery sticks, Gerard. It reminds me of a neighbor who always swore he was going to give out cough drops to trick-or-treaters — but on the other hand, it sounds so perfectly ‘you’ that I can imagine you giving then out. The alternatives to candy I remember from my own childhood were apples and raisins. Homemade popcorn balls were good, too. I haven’t had a decent popcorn ball in years.

      When I lived in Iowa, we’d gather morel mushrooms, which were perfectly delicious. Apparently chanterelles and morels grow in Texas, but they’re well north of my area.

      1. I was just kidding about the celery sticks, Linda. Australia does not have a national dental scheme, hence tooth decay is terrible, especially amongst children. Halloween is exploited by the sugar industry. Some parents complain about this, and so do I.
        Tooth decay is not all. Obesity is costing billions, and yet, not a word from the government.!
        Australia is a large sugar producer and exporter.

    1. The corpse flowers are so interesting. Our first one in Houston was named Lois. She bloomed in 2010, and was quite a sensation. She had her own Twitter account, and a live online feed. People would say things like, “Have you seen Lois today? How’s she looking?” It seemed at times that she’d transfixed the entire city, and when her bloom was over, it was sad.

      One couple got married at the museum during her bloom. As an article in the newspaper said, “The flower girl at Jessica Zabala’s wedding is purple, six-feet-tall, uninvited, and smells like dead bodies.”

  2. I see from your link that the octopus stinkhorn is native to Australia and New Zealand. If I’d heard of it and known that last year, I might have sought it out in New Zealand.

    I always connect “MacArthur Park” with Honduras for the extrinsic reason that I lived there when the fully orchestrated Richard Harris version of the song became popular in 1968. Decades later I heard the composer, Jimmy Webb, sing it with piano only in a small venue at the University of Texas. Both versions have their appeal.

    1. Finding one of those stinkhorns certainly would provide some interesting photographic opportunities. There are some great photos of it still in its ‘egg’ stage here. If/when you return to NZ, you’ll know what to look for.

      Thanks for the nudge about Jimmy Webb, too. I associate the song so closely with Harris that I tend to forget he wasn’t the writer. I’ve tidied things up a bit in the post to make Webb’s role clearer. There are several online videos of Webb in concert in the sort of venue you describe. It would have been a fine evening.

      1. I remember my father commenting, late in his life, that too often creators aren’t given credit for their work. That’s especially the case online now: accompanying the lyrics of a song you’ll almost always find the name of the singer who popularized it, and rarely the name of the person who wrote it.

        1. In 1968, when I first heard “MacArthur Park,” I was working in an office and listening to AM radio. In those days, there never was any information offered except the song title and performer. Harris’s version so affected me so strongly I can remember an amazing number of details from that afternoon: who was sitting behind me, the papers on the desk, and so on. Mental ‘snapshots in time’ are a real thing.

          1. Speaking of which, get a load of this sentence: “In the cracks and crevices of that limestone were the mudstones and cherts—call them shale and flint—that now make up the soft rock/hard rock layer cake of these hills. Bake for a few million years. Leave that cake out in the rain long enough and it eventually erodes into the rounded swells and tabletops and washes we walk today.”

            That’s in an article about the Flint Hills in the current issue of Smithsonian.

            1. I just dipped into the article. I see it references Annie Wilson and the Tallgrass Express, as well as their song about the big bluestem. Thanks for passing it on. I’m anxious to read the entire thing, but I think I’ll put it off for a bit, since travel’s not in the cards this fall, and it took no more than two paragraphs for my impulse control to begin dissolving!

    1. I’ve heard of dogs chasing their tails, but this is just as good. I suspect we’ve all had those days, Halloween or not. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’d lose my head if it weren’t attached”?

  3. I’m positively fascinated by the fungi kingdom. Devils Fingers just makes me even more so! Have you heard of ‘zombie ants?’ Cordyceps are great for many human ailments, but it’s positively horrifying for ants who haul off those infected (to prevent spore release inside the colony). Just awesome stuff.

    1. I hadn’t heard about the zombie ants, but now I’ve made their acquaintance. I read the summaries of a couple of studies that have been done (just which ants are targeted? why? how?) and it is fascinating. Of course, now you’ve brought to mind the first zombies I knew about, and I’m laughing right along. It was a hit for the Kingston Trio, but I like this version better.

  4. “Deliciously creepy” is right, yaah! the flies are the perfect finishing touch.
    A couple of years ago, my parents found out I’d never heard “MacArthur Park,” and they gave their impression of how Richard Harris “sang” it, and that was genuinely scary, too.

    1. I never realized how important flies are until something died in the walls a few years ago. The stench was remarkable. The guru I consulted asked if I’d seen flies yet. When I said I hadn’t, he said, “Not to worry. When the flies show up, the smell will be gone. Give it a few days.” In under a week, all was well. It took me a while to figure out how the whole process worked, but it’s really pretty cool. Nature certainly does a good job of cleaning up after herself, unlike some humans.

      I laughed at the thought of your parents doing a rendition of “MacArthur Park.” I went for years without knowing what the song was “about” — relationship breakup, and all that. It’s perfectly fine just being a mashup of inscrutable images. Obviously, I’ve never forgotten that melting cake.

  5. Love the video; it seemed snail-like to me. The shroom has a melty look about it, but I guess that’s part of what makes it delish for the critters.

    1. In my area, we have a lot of those common lawn mushrooms, and occasionally I’ll see a somewhat fancier one with a ruffled edge, but the melty one is a sort I’d never seen until I got to the piney woods. I enjoyed seeing the one Automatic Gardener posted today, too. All those slick, drippy, weird looking things certainly had to influence certain horror movies I’ve seen!

    1. Between the radar imagery and the lightning I’m beginning to see, I’d say Mother Nature’s just about on our doorstep. If we turn out the lights and head to the back room, do you think she’ll think we’re not home, and move on down the road?

      There wasn’t a trick-or-treater around tonight. There were a few cute little kids last year, so I got some candy, just in case. Tomorrow, I’ll take it down to Blackburn Marine and put it in their jack-o-lanterns. I was in Walgreens this afternoon and discovered the clerks putting out Christmas candy. Poor Thanksgiving. Apparently there’s no money to be made in that celebration.

    1. And I’m happy to be found! Isn’t that video something? I was so tickled when I saw your mushrooms this morning. Clearly, great minds think alike, at least when it comes to naturally spooky images for Halloween!

    1. It is just the right combination. Looking at it reminded me of going to scary movies when we were kids. We were sure we wanted to watch, but we couldn’t look away, so we’d put our hands over our eyes and peek through our fingers. Hope your Halloween had just the right amount of spookiness!

  6. That mushroom looks like it’s got caramel draped across the top of it! Somehow, learning it’s really decaying makes it far less appealing. As for that other fungus, all I can say is, eww!! Creepy stuff, just perfect for Halloween, Linda.

    1. It does look like caramel. Sprinkle a few chopped pecans on top, and we’d have something, for sure — at least until we figured out what it truly is. I wondered if anyone had made a Halloween cake shaped like a mushroom, and of course they have. But I found something else that tickled me: Happy Halloween!

    1. Can’t you just imagine what people think who see those without knowing what they are? At least in real life those ‘fingers’ wouldn’t be poking up through the ground quite so fast, as though someone really was “comin’ to gitcha!”

    1. I really was fascinated by that video when I found it. I’ve watched it several times — sometimes it’s hard to believe what nature can produce. There still are a few things I’d rather not come across — including millipedes and scorpions — but I’d love to find one of these.

    1. They mostly don’t live in the U.S. — they’re native to Australia and New Zealand, and perhaps some other places. They can be found in the L.A./San Diego areas, though. I read one article that suggested they probably arrived in shipments of bamboo at the port: not as plants, but as spores.

  7. Another fascinating post from you, Linda! So interesting and so much to learn. The mushroom looks like dipped in caramel and cream, yet has something creepy about it! I listened to MacArthur Park for the first time. The Devil’s Fingers gave a real Halloween feel! If am not wrong, your last year Halloween post was on spiders. Happy November!

    1. Happy November, indeed. This very minute, a wonderful, strong cold front is moving through with wind and rain — by tomorrow morning, it will be much cooler, and feel like real autumn has arrived.

      Some of these mushrooms (and other natural oddities) certainly can set up an approach/avoidance conflict. On the one hand, they’re fascinating and invite exploration. On the other hand, a second look sometimes evokes distaste — or worse. But we do love to be just a little scared or uncertain, and nature has her ways of helping us have those experiences!

  8. I suppose if you can accept that the Devil has cloven hooves for feet, you can accept he has six fingers . . . . Nature is always and endlessly fascinating. This being Samhain, we toast to absent friends.

    1. Personally, I’ve always been fond of the forked tail and pitchfork, but those fingers do have a certain — Je ne sais pas. At first I thought it was too bad the plant got loaded down with those negative connotations, but the more I watched the video, the more I thought,”Well… Yes, it works.”

      I’ve been reading about liminality. It’s another, more scientific word for that thin, thin veil.

    1. “MacArthur Park” isn’t a song you can add to just any discussion, but it certainly worked here. I think the devil’s fingers are pretty darned special, too. I know almost nothing about fungi, but in the process of trying to ID the melty one up above, I discovered I have a photo of a puffball. One of these days I’ll get it sorted. Life in the forest is much different than life on the prairie, but it’s just as interesting.

  9. Haven’t heard of the octopus stinkhorns here is Australia, but then I don’t live near damp, decaying leaf litter which might provide a good home for them.

    They’re creepy to say the least.

    1. I’m sure you’re right that they require the same kind of conditions as any fungus: dark, dank, and damp. I just was happy to find yet another oddity from your part of the world. When I did an image search for Australian fungi, I couldn’t believe how colorful some are — just like your birds.

      1. I think one of the advantages in living in such a vast country as Australia is the full range of climatic conditions from tropical to desert to temperate. Well, not arctic conditions of course. With the distance from many other land masses or continents, it may be that we don’t get as many ‘foreigners’ (I mean plant/animal) mixing with our native species. We have very strict laws, even between states, to try and avoid plant pests and contamination of food crops. I think Australia ranks as about #7 in diversity, but we do have the largest variety of indigenous reptiles and fish (I was reading recently). If I had a car and could still drive, I daresay I could photograph and share some more of our diverse flora and fauna that is barely an hour’s drive from my current home. Unfortunately, nerve damage in my R foot (car accelerator foot) from a work fall & subsequent surgery back in 1997/98 was the start to cutting back, and then, ending my driving ability. And now, I am restricted even further and can’t do as much via public transport to photograph and share online. Such a shame as I have the interest and time (now I’m not working).

        1. As a friend says, there’s never enough time, money, or energy to get “it” all done. Sometimes, a lack of all three can bring things to a full stop, but there’s usually a way to get moving again, if only metaphorically.

          In a way, Texas profits from its size in the same way as your country. Granted, we don’t have the beautiful coasts or the mountains, but there is great diversity. Generally speaking, people divide the state into ten ecoregions, and each is quite distinct.

          A blogger I follow has been doing an interesting project this year: recording what shows up in one square meter of prairie, and documenting the changes there. It’s an appealing idea, and I’ve thought of perhaps doing something similar next year.

    1. Isn’t that something? The old saw about truth being stranger than fiction does come to mind now and then when I’m out in the natural world. There are things happening out there we can’t even imagine!

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