“Fly, my pretties, fly!”
-Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz
My sister is the one who first spotted the witch’s heart where it lay burst open on the ground in the backyard of her house in Northern California. When she showed it to me, she issued a warning: “Don’t get too close! It may be poisonous.” I bent over as close as I could, thinking of the scene from Alien while laughing and waiting for it to launch itself at me, looking deep into the interior the way victims do right before regret. “It may be poisonous or a delicacy, the reports seemed to conflict,” she told me, issuing other warnings not to get too close.
Last night, I dreamt of the Witch’s Heart she’d shown me where it lay under a California Live Oak. You see something like that coming out of the ground and you can’t help but wonder, “where’s the body buried?”
A member of the stinkhorn family, this fungus is noted for being the worst smelling of the bunch, according to some reports. Clathrus ruber, as it is properly known, comes from the Greek word Clathrus meaning “lattice” and Latin word ruber meaning “red.” Also called the lattice stinkhorn, the basket stinkhorn, or the red cage, the name Witch’s Heart comes from the Adriatic in an area formerly part of Yugoslavia.
Originally of European descent, Clathrus ruber are now found in Africa, Asia, Australia, North and South America and Europe, occurring in wooded areas where there is mulch or leaf litter, in other words, just where you might expect to find a body.
First described in 1560 by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner, it was originally mistaken for a marine organism. It was described in full (see below) in 1729.
The outside of the “egg” shape has a delicate lattice work and is attached to the ground by cords called rhizimorphs. The egg contains a green, calcium-rich ooze called gleba which attracts flies with its haunting fetid odor. Insects attracted to the gleba distribute the spores. In 1862 Mordecai Cubitt Cooke wrote, “it is recorded of a botanist who gathered one for the purpose of drying it for his herbarium, that he was compelled by the stench to rise during the night and cast the offender out the window.” (SOURCE: Wikipedia) In the right growing culture, such as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Calthrus ruber will fruit nearly year round.
The fungus is known for its smell which has been compared to rotting meat and though there is some debate as to whether or not the fungus is edible, in some parts of Asia and Europe, the immature “eggs” are rumored to be pickled and sold as devil’s eggs. The spongy red parts of the fungus are loaded with lycopene and beta carotene just like tomatoes and carrots minus the gustatory allure.
An 1854 medical report from South Carolina mentions the following:
“A young person having eaten a bit of it, after six hours suffered from a painful tension of the lower stomach, and violent convulsions. He lost the use of his speech, and fell into a state of stupor, which lasted for forty-eight hours. After taking an emetic he threw up a fragment of the mushroom, with two worms, and mucus, tinged with blood. Milk, oil, and emollient fomentations, were then employed with success.”
Once burst from the egg, the mushrooms are short-lived lasting only a day or two before the spores and smell disappear. Having seen one of these burst overnight, I was delighted to find this short time-lapse video of the maturation process of the Witch’s Heart.