Sex and the Single Stinkhorn
by Debbie ViessOoooooooo, what’s that smell??! Catnip to carrion flies, with a heady fragrance akin to “Eau de Poop,” this curious fungus, the veiled stinkhorn, pokes its smelly head above the fray in the absurd form of a human penis wearing an open-weave skirt – but this phallus is not about human sex, guys and gals, but rather fungal spore dispersal.
The reason these mushrooms are called “stinkhorns” is because they stink. Mushroom fans and foes, of both sexes, have had unpleasant olfactory encounters with members of the stinkhorn family. If you can just stay upwind, then you can admire their sometimes beautiful and certainly unusual forms without gagging, but no one in their right mind seeks this mushroom out for its “enticing” fragrance.
Apparently, a medicinal mushroom grower and purveyor from Carson City, Nevada would have you believe otherwise. In 2001, while employed by Next Labs in Hawaii, a “wholly owned subsidiary of a pharmaceutical giant,” John Holliday and Noah Soule published a rather sketchy study in an obscure journal — the Journal of International Medicinal Mushrooms (Holliday, 2015). Holliday is a former editor of that journal.
The paper was titled: “Spontaneous Female Orgasms Triggered by Smell of a Newly Found Tropical Dictyophora Species.” That’s quite a claim. How did they back it up? Well, appropriately enough, they started by citing a so-called ancient Hawaiian myth of an innocent Hawaiian maiden who discovers some beautiful veiled stinkhorns and is overcome with lust (Holliday, 2001). The authors then claim that all of the “higher” Polynesian islands also have these fables – and yet, not a single source is cited!
“Ancient Hawaiian Myth” Demystified by Expert
Since Holliday didn’t and couldn’t provide any references for these “widespread” myths, I went to another trusted source: Dr. Don Hemmes, Professor Emeritus in Biology at the University of Hawaii, Hilo. He in turn contacted his colleague, Dr. Kalena Silva, Chair of the Hawaiian Studies Department at University of Hawaii, Hilo, and world authority on Hawaiian legends and chants.
Silva read the so-called “Legend of the Women’s Mushroom” (Holliday, 2001), which introduced Holliday’s paper. Here is his response, quoted with permission, in a letter to Hemmes:
I have never heard nor seen this story in print and, based on all the information available to me, believe it to be a piece of fabrication by non-Polynesians and certainly not by Hawaiians. Here are some reasons for my belief:
1.) There is no cultural or historical basis for the purported name of the mushroom. A search in the Ulukau Hawaiian Electronic Library of Hawaiian language newspapers from 1834 to 1948 does not show a single occurrence of the purported name of the mushroom, “Mamalu o Wahine” (even when spelled as “Mamaluowahine”).
2.) The purported name of the mushroom is grammatically incorrect. The Pukui/Elbert Hawaiian Dictionary lists “māmalu” as a type of mushroom, without any further description. So the name appears to be a contrived, ungrammatical attempt at “Māmalu (the mushroom) of the woman/of women” which would be correctly worded in Hawaiian, “Māmalu o kaWahine.” The purported name would only be grammatically correct if the meaning were “Māmalu of Wahine (the name of the person whose mushroom it is)”. But this would sound odd and doesn’t seem likely.
3.) The story’s characters do not exist in traditional Hawaiian orature/literature. An electronic Hawaiian newspapers search does not show the occurrence of any of the story’s characters, not even the “great King Kupakani.”
4.) The characters’ names are Hawaiian language-based, but the story takes place in Rarotonga, nearly 3,000 miles away, where Cook Islands Māori, and not Hawaiian, is spoken. The man and his wife are said to raise a large family and become rulers of Rarotonga. I know of no ancient Hawaiians who became rulers of Rarotonga.
5.) A real Hawaiian story would include at least one specific place name associated with the mushroom. None is given.
Whoever made up this story knows little, if anything, about the peoples and cultures of Polynesia.
Holliday admits in his paper that his “legend” is a bit of an amalgam, “a typical story as told over a large area of the Pacific…” (Holliday, 2001), which might explain the mishmash of language and fictitious names, but doesn’t explain why a respected scholar of Hawaiian culture has never heard of this so-called “ancient and widespread legend.”
These purported fables of sexy stinkhorns are apparently not just restricted to tropical islands full of beautiful, lusty brown maidens. The authors expand upon their claim by vaguely referring to other stories of stinkhorns being the cause of female arousal: “… interestingly enough, there are many legends from around the world, attributing similar properties to the stinkhorn mushrooms, particularly those of the genus Dictyophora” (Holliday, 2001).
Interesting indeed, but where are the actual citations? None were given in the paper. Perhaps Holliday is referring to some sort of discredited Doctrine of Signatures, whereby a plant (or in this case a fungus) is used to cure the disease of a body part that it resembles? Rhino horn, impotence and Chinese medicine come to mind. But in this case, wouldn’t male dysfunction be the logical disease to treat? Shouldn’t those female botanical cures resemble vulvas, not phalli?
Barren Lava Fields Unlikely Fungal Habitat
The authors also claim that the Hawaiian stinkhorn mushroom in question is a new species in the genus Dictyophora [now Phallus, DV], growing from recent lava flows on Hawaii. During a talk at the 2014 Telluride Mushroom Fest, Holliday described the habitat as “hot, black, rocky lava flows right above the ocean in the saltwater surf zone.”
According to mycologist Dr. Nicole Hynson, at University of Hawaii, Mānoa, that’s an extremely unusual environment to find this type of mushroom. “There are fungi that inhabit recent lava flows, but I’ve never seen a stinkhorn on that barren substrate – they feed off of dead organic matter, and there just isn’t much of that on those rocks” (Kelly, 2015).
Even the study authors acknowledge that these veiled stinkhorns don’t just occur on barren lava flows at ocean’s edge, citing it from more inland Hawaiian forests and deserts (Holliday, 2001). These oases of plant life provide plenty of material for a saprobic fungus to make a living, and are a far more likely habitat than naked lava beds.
Evidence Lacking for New Phallus spp. in Hawaii
Holliday and Soule searched for and found veiled stinkhorns growing in Hawaii (they are quite common in suitable habitat on the Big Island), and claimed that these so-called orgasm-inducing stinkhorns “might” be a new species, although they also admitted that it bore a close similarity to the well-known tropical species Phallus indusiatus (Holliday, 2001).
No proof was offered to demonstrate that this “new” stinkhorn was different from P. indusiatus or any other species of tropical Phallus – no photos were presented and no DNA comparison run, even fourteen years after this initial study.The color of the indusium or netted veil itself, an important species characteristic, was not mentioned in the species description found in this paper. No formal name for this “new species” was ever proposed or published.
According to Hemmes, many different species of stinkhorns have been introduced to the Hawaiian Islands, but he believes that if P. indusiatus is present, it is a fairly new transplant (Hemmes, 2015). A single record of this species was made in 1907, growing on sugar cane trash on the island of Hawaii (Goos, 1970). It has not been recorded since, but that doesn’t mean that it might not be a new arrival: P. indusiatus has a cosmopolitan distribution in the tropics, and is even grown commercially in China as food.
Hemmes is usually the first person to know of a bizarre new addition to the island’s fungal mycota, as he is the go-to person in Hawaii for mushroom identification. Local discovery of a stinkhorn in general creates a lot of buzz, merely because of their bizarre shapes, not to mention that awful odor. In other words, it’s hard for anyone to overlook this particular fungus when it does pop up. Hemmes believes that the species that Holliday and Soule are describing is Dictyophora (now Phallus) cinnabarina. A spectacular fungus, it is on the cover of his book, Mushrooms of Hawaii (Hemmes and Desjardin, 2002).
Hemmes has been studying fungi on Hawaii for over 40 years, and he wrote me about the various netted stinkhorns found on the Big Island of Hawaii:
“We have three [former] Dictyophora species in Hawaii.
Phallus cinnabarina (the one Holliday is referring to), is the one in which the indusium is orangish-pink. This species is quite common on the Big Island in composted woodchips and on lawns. It will appear in troops of hundreds. [Photo just above, and at the beginning of the article]
Phallus multicolor is also common now in the same substrates. The indusium is lemon yellow. [Photo just below]
The third is P. atrovolvatus with a pure white indusium. [Photo further down the page]
I have no records of these species on any of the other Hawaiian Islands, but it is possible they are there. None of them grow on barren lava fields!!!!”
(Hemmes, 2015; Hemmes and Desjardin, 2002)
The study authors themselves provided no photos of this “new species” of Hawaiian netted stinkhorns in situ, whether on bare lava rock or forested sand.
All stinkhorn species that occur on the islands have been introduced. Introductions in recent history have been primarily with the transportation of mulches and ornamental or crop plants (sugar cane, etc.). The original Polynesian settlers of the Hawaiian Islands may well have inadvertently introduced some stinkhorn species, brought along with various food plants like bamboo and sugarcane and breadfruit. These were all carried, among many other necessities for a new life, in their exquisitely sea-worthy, large voyaging canoes.
Salacious Speculation, Mysterious Methodology
Holliday and Soule were apparently ignorant of the fact that some people do eat stinkhorns as an edible species, but either only in the egg state, before the spore mass has developed its awful stench, or after carefully washing away the stinking gleba, like in the case of dried and netted P. indusiastus for sale in various Chinese markets. Holding himself up as “male” (as though that made a difference!) the author states that due to its foul odor, he “wouldn’t touch it with a fork,” but in contrast, some of his “female associates” would like to “gobble it up!” (Holliday, 2001)
For heaven’s sake, is this science, or a page taken from Penthouse magazine??!
The paper discusses its study protocols. “Random” and “willing” volunteers were asked to sniff these stinkhorns. How they were recruited and what they were told beforehand was not stated. How various physiological reactions in both male and female subjects were measured after exposure to the odor of these stinkhorns was not mentioned. How these so called “orgasmic” experiences by women subjects were measured was not mentioned. Observer bias was not accounted for, volunteer bias was not accounted for, nor how these stinkhorns were presented for odor sampling – no mention of a blind study, or any sort of controls. The males were “repulsed” and refused to participate any further, but the women fell all over themselves in paroxysms of delight, or as stated by Holliday and Soule, “experienced immediate, spontaneous and profound orgasms” (Holliday, 2001).
Apparently blood pressure and pulse rates were measured as elevated in women in the first trial, and skin flushing was noted, and interpreted by the researchers as an indication of orgasm, but physiological effects were NOT measured or noted in the men. But doesn’t strong disgust and a wish to flee also produce physiological effects? That is the experience that the men described.
The authors were concerned about cardiac effects from such a “strong reaction” in the women subjects, and to prevent a “cardiac incident,” gave further female subjects older,i.e. milder smelling, examples of stinkhorns for odor assessment (Holliday, 2001).
Providing female subjects with older, less fragrant examples of stinkhorns produced equivocal results: no “orgasms” were noted, leading the authors to conclude that reactions were “dose dependent” (Holliday, 2001).
Interpretation of Ambiguous Results
In truth, there was no clear example of just what any of those physiological reactions actually demonstrated – an inhibited flight response, perhaps? Deep disgust and the wish to flee can also cause an elevated heart rate and increased respiration and blood pressure. Certainly both men and women should have been monitored for their physiological reactions.
Dr. Jeffrey Mitton, a Professor of Ecology at Colorado State University, had this to say about the odor of stinkhorns:
“I first noted it from about 10 feet away, but at shorter ranges it grew to be intense and disturbing. When I approached within 3 feet for a macro shot of the fungus cap, the odor grew to a sickly sweet, cloyingly disgusting stench, combining elements of carrion and feces. The smell is so bad that some people have mentioned a sense of panic in close proximity with a stinkhorn” (Mitton, 2015).
“Some people” includes women, as well as men.
When I contacted Holliday for further clarification about this study, after he had been kind enough to send me a copy of his full paper, he refused to answer any of my follow-up questions, claiming a strict non-disclosure agreement (NDA) from the pharmaceutical company that funded the original study in Hawaii. This potential conflict of interest was also not mentioned in the paper itself, but rather in an email to me (Holliday, 2015).
I was not asking about potentially patented chemicals for some sort of dubious female aphrodisiac, I was just curious about the important study protocol details. If a study cannot be reproduced, its conclusions are invalid. By merely reading this rather sketchy and mostly fantasy-based study, one cannot determine true protocols to design any sort of corroborating study, if one would be foolish enough to want to do so.
Scents and Sensibility
After citing their mostly mysterious methodology, the authors draw their conclusions. Their strongest argument for a precedent for fungal/mammalian sexual attraction was the claim that there are already mammalian pheromones found in the fungal world: 5-alpha androsterol, one of almost 200 volatile chemical compounds found in the black Périgord truffle. The commonly repeated story is that only female pigs are attracted to these truffles, because they smell like male pigs.
Let’s look at this statement logically. Pigs are highly intelligent animals – do we really believe that a female truffle pig thinks that there is a sexy boar underground, rather than some sort of food source? It is also pure male fantasy to think that only female pigs are attracted to Périgord truffles: male pigs hunt them too, as do dogs, deer, squirrels, bear and a wide variety of insects.
In a recent controlled study on just which chemicals actually serve as the mammalian spore vector attractant, at least in the case of pigs and dogs, it turns out that 5-alpha-androstenol was completely ignored by both animals, and it was the dominant aromatic dimethyl sulfide found in those truffles that actually attracted both species (Streiblová, 2012).
As Holliday and Soule searched for that magical “Compound O” that created spontaneous orgasms in human females, they decided to sample the saliva of female subjects, while they were having sex, to look for a chemical that increased through various states of female arousal. Gas chromatography was performed, but results were inconclusive (Holliday, 2001).
No compound was found.
The authors conclude their study by baldly stating that “insects are attracted by smell; this is the reason that flowers smell” (Holliday, 2001).Well, flowers don’t actually “smell” since they don’t have noses, although I am sure that Holliday meant it to mean that flowers have an odor. Odor is not a primary cue for insect pollinators though; insects primarily use visual cues in their co-evolved dance of pollination with plants (McDaniel College webpages).
The authors rightly mention that stinkhorns use odor to attract their fly spore vectors, but these are primarily carrion and feces flies, and the odors that they are targeting are hardly pleasant to either men or women!
The authors then travel again to fantasy-land, where they state that although “most authors” (aka men) of stinkhorn studies reported the odor as repugnant, perhaps that’s merely because their “wives” haven’t had a sniff of those stinking phalli? (Holliday, 2001)
Sorry, Mr. Holliday, wrong again. Even we of the weaker sex can easily smell the foul odors of death and poop, and don’t find that a bit sexy, any more than you do. Some of the stinkhorn species have fleetingly pleasant odors, but certainly not once the gleba is mature. Others have described stinkhorn odors as “cloyingly sweet.” Again, these odors are no olfactory enticement to most, regardless of sex.
In a videographed panel discussion on ethnomycology at the Telluride Mushroom Festival in 2014, speaking about this study, Holliday claimed that half of all women contain a “special organ” in their noses that perceives pheromones. He is no doubt referring to the vomeronasal organ (VNO), to perhaps explain why “only half of his subjects had orgasms” (Telluride Institute, 2014).
But the VNO, although present and somewhat functional early in the development of human fetuses, is widely believed by most scientists to degrade into a non-functioning form with fetal growth, and is only represented after birth as a vestigial organ. All other Old World apes and some other Old World primates lack a functioning VNO. Unlike many other vertebrates, we no longer have a direct link from our noses to our libidos/sexual responses (Smith, 2014).
Here is how the VNO works when it is a functioning organ:
The regular olfactory tissues inside the nose can detect pheromones, but when these chemicals bind to the receptors inside the VNO, they trigger a unique set of neural pathways in the brain.
Instead of traveling to the olfactory bulb of the brain, where signals from odors are typically sorted out, VNO neurons send information to a separate processing hub where they connect to neurons from the amygdala and hypothalamus, parts of the brain that control sexual response. Some pheromones work through the VNO to amplify sexual interest, other pheromones can damp it down.
Humans, as it turns out, don’t have a working VNO. Neither do most of the other Old World primates like apes and baboons. So if pheromones have any role in our daily lives, they have to fight for attention in our noses with all the other odors out there, rather than tickling the main line to the sexual brain.
Why This Study Isn’t Really Science by Scientists
If this is the caliber of science involved in the medicinal mushroom world, then let the buyer beware! This “study” and recent online media frenzies over its salacious topic, served as great click-bait for an unthinking world public: women falling all over themselves to get a shot at a stinking pseudo-phallus. Talk about improbable male fantasies come to life! Dream on, fellas.
Holliday ends the study with a hopeful note: “an estimated 30-50% of women experience some degree of orgasmic dysfunction during their lives. Could … Dictyophora hold the key to unlocking that mystery?” (Holliday, 2001)
Not likely, Mr. Holliday. I could think of several reasons why that statistic might be true, but none of them to do with a lack of stinkhorns in their lives. Misogyny appears to be alive and well, and masquerading as the most specious of quasi-science experiments.
On a related note, Mr. Holliday often allows others to refer to him as Dr. Holliday (for example, see the Facebook page for his current company, Aloha Medicinals, or advertisements for the 2014 Telluride Mushroom Festival), but in fact, I could find no evidence of any specialized, formal training in mycology for him whatsoever. He does have an honorary doctorate in mycology, bestowed upon him by an unnamed Chinese institution, but that is not the same as an earned doctorate — it is an award, not an education (Sodoma, 2009). He is perfectly within his rights to claim the honorific “Dr.” while visiting that particular Chinese campus, though.
“Where commerce enters, science exits.”
As another scientist recently said to me, “Where commerce enters, science exits.” This flimsy, sensationalistic study is an excellent example of that maxim. The study was performed in hopes of producing a marketable aphrodisiac for women. Nothing in this study indicates that such a compound exists, at least in Hawaiian netted stinkhorns.
Holliday indignantly claimed in an email to me that this compound “has never been offered to the public in any way shape or form,” but that it is in the “drug development phase” (Holliday, 2015). But no “Compound O” was ever found, according to the original research, and clearly, the study protocols were iffy at best.
Here is Holliday’s quote in an email to me: “…if you want to point the finger and call it snake oil your finger should point at the drug company or the FDA, not at me. I have nothing to do with it. Being the mycologist that described it originally is a long way from having any sort of economic interest in the resulting products derived from it” (Holliday, 2015).
But Holliday never formally described this new species; he did suggest and carry out the study, however, and he makes his living selling medicinal mushrooms. His current company, Aloha Medicinals, is in fact listed as one of the corresponding addresses for co-author Soule on that original paper, although Holliday did not own Aloha Medicinals at the time.
Holliday also made the claim to me that the reason that the paper was “so flimsy” (no methods, no references) was because Next Labs wanted to downplay the study at the last minute, realizing that they were “sitting on a huge potential goldmine” and didn’t want to give anything away to potential competitors (Holliday, 2015). But nothing contained in that study indicated that there was any truth to this wild theory, unless they are planning on spinning straw into gold.
Holliday was still talking about his “orgasmic stinkhorn” as recently as 2014 in Telluride, so his disavowal of any responsibility, as the primary author and continuing proponent of that study, is rather disingenuous.
Holliday may not own the rights to this potential “goldmine,” as he called it, but it was his study that is being widely cited, and from which someone hopes, someday, to make a good bit of money.
Thinking readers of Mushroom the Journal and discerning others everywhere – don’t buy in.
References and Further Reading
Goos, R.D., 1970. “Phalloid Fungi in Hawaii,” Pacific Science, Vol. 24, April 1970.
Hemmes, Don E. and D. Desjardin, 2002. Mushrooms of Hawaii: An Identification Guide, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.
Hemmes, Don E. and D. E. Desjardin, 2009. “Stinkhorns of the Hawaiian Islands,” Fungi 2(3): 8-10
Hemmes, Don, July 18, 2015. Personal correspondence
Hemmes, Don, Nov. 4, 2015. Personal correspondence
Holliday, John C. and Noah Soule. 2001. “Spontaneous Female Orgasms Triggered by Smell of a Newly Found Tropical Dictyophora Species,” International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, Vol. 3. P. 162 (abstract); 9 page full pdf article sent to me by Holliday.
Holliday, John, July 19, 2015. Personal correspondence
Johnson, S.D. and Jurgens, A. 2010. “Convergent evolution of carrion and faecal scent mimicry in fly-pollinated angiosperm flowers and a stinkhorn fungus,” South African Journal of Botany 76(4): 796–807.
Kelly, Diane,May 8, 2015, “This Funny Face is Actually Essential to Mammals Sex,” throb.gizmodo.com
Kelly, Diane, Oct. 16, 2015.“About that Orgasmic Mushroom: It Probably Doesn’t Exist,” throb.gizmodo.com
McDaniel College, pollination webpage. http://www2.mcdaniel.edu/Biology/botf99/flowernew/pollination.htm
Mitton, Jeffrey, Nov. 5, 2015. “Stinkhorn Mushrooms Use Flies to Disperse Spores,” Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine.
Smith, Timothy, J.T. Laitman and K. Bhatnagar, 2014. “The Shrinking Anthropoid Nose, the Human Vomeronasal Organ, and the Language of Anatomical Reduction,” The Anatomical Record 297: 2196-2204
Brian Sodoma, 2009. “Small Business Exporter of the Year: John C. Holliday, Aloha Medicinals Inc.,” Las Vegas Sun, June 29, 2009
Streiblová, Eva, Hana Gryndlerová, Milan Gryndler, 2012. “Fungal Brule, an Efficient Fungal Life Strategy,” FEMS Microbiology Ecology
Telluride Institute, 2014. “Telluride Mushroom Fest 2014: Ethnomycology panel,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSRwFEUI0IA
This article is from the Fall 2015 issue of Mushroom the Journal.