It looks like something from a horror movie. Within a bulbous, translucent egg, red tentacles writhe, ready to explode out. Moreover, those tentacles don’t just look terrifying; they carry an unpleasant stench as well. No, this isn’t the trailer for some new sci-fi blockbuster, it’s a very real, very natural phenomenon – and it’s happening in the U.K. right now.
These strange things were found in the New Forest, a national park in the south-east of England. They’re native to Australia and New Zealand, but they’ve also been in England for more than a century. In fact, they first came over to Europe via supply ships during World War One, and they’ve been spreading across the country ever since.
Moreover, even worse than their appearance is the stench that these bizarre things give off. Indeed, many people have compared the odor to rotting flesh. It’s almost like the plant was designed to terrify humans. Still, what are these strange beasts and, perhaps more importantly, what should you do if you see one?
Well, for starters, they’re not beasts. What you’re looking at is actually a fungus. That’s right, the thing bursting out of that egg is essentially a mushroom. Its Latin name is Clathrus archeri, but it has some more appropriate titles. For instance, it’s been called the devil’s fingers and, even more fittingly, the octopus stinkhorn.
While the whole display might look repulsive to us, the octopus stinkhorn is actually perfectly evolved to reproduce. Indeed, that’s what the tentacles are for. They’re designed to entice flies to come and land on the fungus. When the flies leave, they take the organism’s spores with them and subsequently spread them wherever they land next.
You see, the smell that the tentacles give off is caused by something called gleba. This liquid is filled with the spores that the fungus uses to reproduce. The fact that it’s brown and stinks like a dying animal means that the flies can’t help but come and have a look. Consequently, their feet become coated and the fungus spreads its weird seed.
When the devil’s fingers fungus hatches from its egg, it can have anything up to seven of these tentacles. To begin with they’re attached at their tips, but before long the fungus opens up, allowing the flies and other insects that it needs to reproduce to begin feeding on the gleba contained within.
The Clathrus archeri is part of a family of fungi known as the Phallaceae. Many of them have similar ways of reproducing. However, it’s fair to say that the devil’s fingers are by far the most terrifying member of the group. After all, watching blood red tentacles bursting out of an egg is the stuff of nightmares.
There’s even a member of the family that’s native to Britain. That’s known as the common stinkhorn. While its reproductive cycle is nowhere near as dramatic as the devil’s finger’s, it follows a similar pattern. Hatching from an egg, its cap is coated with gleba, and it uses a similar stench to entice insects to land on it.
You’ll normally find devil’s fingers in soily areas. Moreover, they grow in clusters, most often in places where there are wood chips or leaf litter on the floor. They’re also found around dead tree stumps. Unlike the majority of fungi, which undergo their egg stage in the ground, the octopus stinkhorn develops on top of the forest floor.
Initially, the oval egg of the octopus stinkhorn is around 3 inches high and 2 inches wide. As the tentacles grow inside, they push upwards, forming ridges on the surface of the egg. Moreover, when they subsequently burst out, these tendrils can reach lengths of up to 5 inches.
Interestingly, while the devil’s fingers might look like they’re highly toxic, they’re actually considered edible. However, that doesn’t mean you should be popping out into the woods looking for them to serve up at a dinner party to try and impress your guests. Indeed, there’s a very good reason for that.
In fact, it’s because the mushroom tastes horrible. That’s not that much of a surprise for a fungus that gives off a stench like a dying animal. Still, when they’re in egg form, the devil’s fingers taste a little like radishes. However, once the tentacles have erupted from the egg, the mushroom is deemed to be inedible.
While you can eat the octopus stinkhorn, that doesn’t mean that you should make a habit of it. Indeed, they should only be consumed in a situation where you don’t have any other food. Even then you’re not going to enjoy the experience. Nonetheless, it will keep you alive if you are absolutely desperate.
That’s not to say that the stinkhorn family isn’t eaten, though. Indeed, the eggs of the species, before they expand, are considered to be delicacies in some countries around the world. However, there’s a type of fungus that’s closely related to the devil’s fingers that can apparently have some pretty terrible side effects.
It’s called Clathrus ruber, and there have been reports in France that merely handling it can cause eczema, vomiting and even cancer. While these claims are far from substantiated, it’s still probably for the best if you don’t go munching on a Clathrus ruber any time soon.
So, if you do spot a devil’s fingers fungus growing in your garden, there’s no need to panic. It’s not the sort of thing that you’re going to have to take down with a flamethrower. In fact, you can just kick the eggs out of the ground. Make sure you’re wearing gloves if you handle them, though, because the smell is horrendous.
Moreover, you can change the mulch in your garden to try to stop the mushrooms from springing up. They like to eat decomposing wood, so using a ground cover that’s either alive or is less likely to decompose is one way to prevent them from spreading. However, you might want to reconsider getting rid of the intriguing fungi.
You see, the fact that there are octopus stinkhorns growing in your garden means that you’ve got the right sort of conditions for decomposition. That’s an important part of the ecosystem of your land. Yes, you will have to deal with the smell, but the mushrooms will dry up after a couple of days.
It’s fair to say that the octopus stinkhorn looks like something out of a terrible dream. Nevertheless, in reality it’s one of the most intriguing organisms living in the world today. If you see one, it’s probably best just to leave it be. Don’t get too close, though. It won’t drag you into hell, but it certainly smells like it’s been there.
But this isn’t the only plant you should keep an eye out for when gardening. Take this quick-spreading, hardy weed, for example, which is much more common and less of an eyesore. It’s probably already lurking in your back yard – and here’s why removing it may not be in your best interest.
Frequently considered a nuisance, this plant is a common guest in gardens around the world. According to the Chicago Tribune, it’s regarded as a “noxious weed” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is due to its invasive nature and potential adverse effect upon wildlife. However, removing it from your garden is not only difficult but can also even be detrimental to your health.
As a succulent, the plant in question is capable of surviving in dry conditions and can grow in poor quality soil. Indeed, it sometimes sprouts from cracks in driveways and in graveled areas, although it grows in rich soil among crops as well. And alarmingly, it spreads very quickly and is known to smother native species.
To make this problem worse, each summer the plant releases thousands of seeds that can survive in the soil for decades. And these seeds thrive when the land is tilled. As a result, the plant is extremely difficult to get rid of and can be a nightmare for gardeners and farmers.
The plant in question is purslane, although scientists refer to it as Portulaca oleracea. It is also known by a wide variety of other names, such as fatweed, duckweed, pigweed, pourpier, little hogweed and verdolaga.
In addition, purslane can cover a lot of ground, with each plant emanating from a solitary taproot to form a thick mass. Its stems, which grow parallel to the ground, are slightly red in color. Meanwhile, its leaves are smooth and plump – like many succulent plants – and shaped like a teardrop.
The plant produces yellow flowers from May till September, and its seed pods contain numerous small, round, black seeds. Despite its reputation as a nuisance, though, the plant nonetheless has several beneficial properties for crops.
For instance, its ability to cover the ground effectively means that it can function as a kind of “living mulch.” And it can also aid the growth of surrounding crops by decreasing the salt concentration of the soil and providing nutrients.
Due to its rapid growth rate, however, purslane has been known to crowd out other plants if it is not cultivated carefully. But while removing the plant is a possibility, actually doing so can be difficult. You see, each plant has the potential to produce more than 200,000 seeds, which may be released when the plant is removed.
The seeds have been known to live for decades before germinating, too. And their growth can be triggered just by turning over the soil. Moreover, even parts of purslane stems left behind can grow into new plants, making complete removal very difficult.
It is therefore recommended that entire plants are removed prior to them producing seeds, which occurs approximately three weeks after seedlings appear. Doing so helps to prevent seeds or stems being left behind. Adding mulch following plant removal can help to control further growth of purslane as well.
However, before trying to remove the plant, people should bear in mind that purslane also contains a number of substances that are beneficial to human health. In fact, not only is the plant of high nutritional value, but it’s tasty, too. And if you’re wondering what the plant tastes like, it is described as having a slight lemon-ish flavor.
What’s more, most parts of the plant can be eaten. Yes, while the roots should be avoided, the leaves, stems, flowers and seeds are all edible and are safe to eat raw or cooked. They can be incorporated into soups, salads, sandwiches, pickles and juices. Purslane can also be used as a thickening agent due to the high concentrations of pectin that it contains.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Dr. Artemis Simopoulos, president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, said, “It’s a miracle plant. I think anyone who has a vegetable garden this year, the purslane will grow as a weed in it. They should not really throw it out. They should eat it.”
There is one potential drawback to eating this plant, however. You see, purslane contains a lot of oxalic acids, which can stop the body from absorbing minerals properly. These are substances that are also found in spinach, and some people can be sensitive to them.
Purslane is a good source of pectin as well, which is a soluble dietary fiber that helps to reduce levels of bad cholesterol. And according to the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, it is “the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids of any green leafy vegetable examined.”
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a healthy metabolism. But as they are not naturally produced by our bodies, omega-3-rich food – such as oily fish – is our sole source. The omega-3 fatty acids linolenic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid are both found in high quantities in purslane. And that makes it a good option for people who are focused on maintaining a healthy diet.
What’s more, the pigments that give the red stems and yellow flowers of purslane their color are also beneficial to our health. That’s because both of these pigments are known for their antioxidant and antimutagenic qualities.
Antioxidants are beneficial to us because they reduce oxidative damage to our bodies. In addition, they can potentially help to prevent diseases such as cancer and various neurodegenerative conditions as well as slowing the effects of ageing.
Furthermore, the levels of beta-carotene and vitamin E are six times higher in purslane than in other vegetable sources such as carrots or spinach. Vitamins A, C and several B vitamins are also found in high quantities in the plant, as are a range of minerals including calcium, iron and potassium. The combination of high levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fatty acids means that purslane is good for the circulatory system, the metabolism, heart health and the skin and eyes – and it can also help to regulate blood sugar. And all that is just the leaves!
Studies investigating the health benefits of purslane seeds have shown that they can decrease levels of bad cholesterol in the human body. As a result, they improve cardiovascular health and lower levels of glucose and insulin in the blood, meaning that they even have potential as an anti-diabetic therapy. Other studies have also noted the potential for chemicals found within purslane seeds to be used as an anti-cancer agents or treatments to reduce the side effects of chemotherapeutics. If you find it in your garden, though, it might be best to just leave it well alone.