“I can’t begin to imagine how you will ‘handle’ this subject.”

So began a text with two amazing photos of a very suggestive member of the mushroom kingdom. Should one giggle, be embarrassed, or aroused by the sight of a few phallic fungi? To each her own.

My response was none of the above, rather just purely scientific interest.

And to answer the original question, I won’t be handling stinkhorn fungi at all, at least not in their mature form. Stinkhorns are famous for their appearance as well as their smell, both of which might keep some of us from getting up close and personal with this notorious knob.

The scent of stinkhorns has been described as putrid, offensive and foul; and has been compared to the smell of a dead mouse on a good day and excrement on a bad one. You often whiff these mushrooms before you see them, as their scent can travel up to 50 feet away from its odiferous owner.

However, it is this rotten aroma that helps assure the survival of stinkhorn mushrooms. The smell is emitted from a slime layer that covers the head of the mushroom. It is sticky and stinky and very much attractive to flies and other dung-loving insects.

Flies land on the luscious liquid and slurp it up, drinking in up to 80 per cent of their body weight in stinkhorn slime per day. As you might expect, this fetid food doesn’t sit well in the stomach of the insect. The diarrhea that ensues is a sure way for explosive distribution of the thousands of reproductive spores in the fly’s excrement. Plus, those spores get caught on the fly’s feet and will be transported that way also. It may all sound a bit nasty, but it works — and with flowers getting all the attention from the birds and the bees, stinkhorn mushrooms have to make do with whatever spore-distributing help they can.

There are a few varieties of stinkhorns that can be observed, including the common stinkhorn, Ravenel’s stinkhorn, and dog’s stinkhorn. They have had more descriptive names over time, such as pricke mushroom, devil’s dipstick, and Hollanders workingtoole; and have a scientific genus name, not surprisingly, of Phallus. The stinkhorn found and photographed on a mulch pile in the parking lot of Fulling Mill Preserve off Middle Road in Chilmark was likely a Ravenel’s stinkhorn.

As suggestive (and perhaps disgusting) as they have been described, it is surprising that anyone would think of eating them, but alas, they do. The most common way to eat them is to harvest the volva, also called an egg, which is the first part of the mushroom to emerge from the mycelia threads in the soil. Be wary, though, because there are a poisonous lookalikes – always be sure to know your identification conclusively when it comes to mushrooms, because in some cases one mistake is the last mistake.

One must be quick to harvest the egg, since it is only present for a very brief time before the mushroom grows to its stiff form.  Wait a few hours and you might be too late, since stinkhorns can grow from egg to glorious stalk in under two hours.

Former President Richard Nixon and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were both offered stinkhorn mushrooms at state dinners during their visits to China. It is not surprising that stinkhorns are believed to have aphrodisiac properties and are revered in Asia, though it is not known whether either leader partook.

However, there are others that wouldn’t recommend their harvest or consumption. In New Guinea, the Iban people (of headhunter fame) called stinkhorns ghost penis fungus. They believed the mushroom was the member of a warrior who was decapitated in battle, and that if you cut the stinkhorn, the twice-mutilated fighter will rise from the ground and pursue you until he cuts off your head with his headhunting sword.

Which brings me back to my initial reaction: after looking into their lifestyle and their lore, you don’t need to convince me not to cut or consume these stinky, sexy shrooms.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.