Florida Fungus: A fascinating find right at your feet

By Conservancy Volunteer Bill Rhodes

Walking along the nature trails at The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, most guests and their docent guides tend to look up into the tree canopy. They may spot a wild orchid there, or the docent will point out the unique leaves and bark of the native trees, telling visitors how, among other things, they can tell the red, black and white mangroves apart. They may reach out and touch the cool, peeling trunk of the fast growing Gumbo Limbo tree, or watch the slow-flying zebra longwing butterflies lazily float by. Other than to avoid stumbling, most visitors do not look down.

But, Florida’s semitropical environment can produce some fascinating finds at your feet. Take, for instance, the Florida Fungus, Clathrus crispus, which appears, almost as if by magic, overnight after several soaking summer rains. Often the size of a baseball, the strikingly-colored round red fungus stands out from the forest floor, with scores of small circular openings, rimmed with tiny grooves. These openings are generally rimmed or occluded with an olive green to brownish sticky liquid. This is the fungal spore-bearing gleba, which is present when the fungus first appears, attracting a variety of flies and other insects that alight there and dine on it.

The Florida Fungus, as it name implies, is found in Florida and other Gulf states, and its range extends south into Central America and the Caribbean. It is saprotrophic (called a saprobe), which means it feeds on decaying organic matter, preferring rotting woody plants, and requires a moist habitat to emerge. The fungal body seen above ground (the typical ‘mushroom’ we often see after a series of soaking rains) is the short-lived fruiting body of an organism that extends outward via a latticework of filaments just below the surface. After a hard summer rain, one or several of these red balls will emerge, but only for a brief time. Within a day or two they have fallen apart and disappeared.

It is a member of the stinkhorn fungus family, and while a bright, lovely red color, the fungus has a distinctive and offensive odor — at least to people. Flies, on the other hand, are attracted to the smell, and land on the brown rims of the many circular openings to dine on the gleba — thus picking up fungal spores, and spreading them to other locations to take hold and grow.

So, the next time you are walking along the trails at the Conservancy, be sure to watch your step — you may be rewarded by spotting the large, bright red Florida Fungus. If you do, consider yourself lucky — it will only be there for the day.