A few weeks ago, I was preparing for a visit from the second grade students. As I bent down to put some tools in place for strawberry planting, I suddenly caught a whiff of a foul, but recognizable, scent.
I turned to investigate and, sure enough, found the culprit. A colony of Red Cage Fungus had sprouted under a piece of cardboard I placed over bark mulch to smother weeds. If you’re not familiar with Red Cage Fungus, you should be! Not only is it a remarkable decomposer, it is a fascinating phenomenon likely to spur engaging science talk.
Of course, I incorporated the fungus into my garden lesson. After all, how often do we have the chance to have kids guess the cause of a living organism that smells like trash and then try to explain why it might be so?
As kids filed into the garden, I had them form a semicircle near enough to smell, but not so near to cause olfactory discomfort (it really is a rather putrid smell, likely to cause some students to gag).
I invited them to make observations and then asked if they noticed anything smelly. They made some conjectures about what could be causing the smell, so I prompted them to look for more evidence. One student noticed an abundance of flies buzzing around the cardboard on the ground, so I asked what they knew about flies.
“Flies like garbage and dog poop.”
I built up anticipation, asking them to stand back an inch or two and be ready to hold their noses. I then pulled back the cardboard dramatically and watched their reactions. What ensued was, no doubt, a memorable experience. Students had so many interesting explanations for why the organism smells so bad (e.g., “Maybe it’s dead”).
Only after putting the observable evidence (flies) together with their background knowledge related to pollinators (a school wide theme we study), did they come up with a likely explanation that matches others in the stinkhorn family:
As distasteful to the nose as it is to the eyes
Its odor’s designed to attract pesky flies
~ Hannah Singer, Nastiest. Mushroom. Ever.
Not all fungi smell bad, but many taste bad (and some are poisonous!). Nearly all produce spores. Flies feed on a brown slime produced by the fruiting body of the red cage fungus, thus picking up and spreading spores when they land somewhere else. That’s a truly unique way to reproduce!
Next time you smell something rotten, you’re bound to think of the Red Cage Fungus. May your senses beware!