Stink Cages and Ghost Droppings: The Curious Tale of the White Basket Fungus
Discover the enigmatic white basket fungus, its otherworldly appearance, intriguing propagation methods, and the cultural significance it holds in New Zealand's Māori tradition.
July 19, 2020
Ileodictyon cibarium, a saprobic fungus, finds its nourishment in the art of breaking down dead organic matter. Known colloquially as the white basket fungus or stink cage, these striking organisms emerge, either solitary or in clusters, amidst woody debris, manicured lawns, gardens, and tilled earth.
The unmistakable form of the white basket fungus calls to mind a miniature, hollowed-out soccer ball, its white, lattice-like branches woven together in a pentagonal pattern that seems too precise, too otherworldly, to be the work of nature.
These interlaced branches are coated in a malodorous slime layer, or gleba, which plays a key role in the fungus's propagation.
Like tumbleweeds dancing in the wind, the white basket fungus relies on air currents to disperse its spores, the wind rolling the basket across the landscape, while the pungent olive-brown slime inside the net attracts flies to aid in the distribution of its spores.
My initial encounter with Ileodictyon cibarium took place in the enchanting Abel Tasman National Park, but since that first discovery, I've found these captivating fungi cropping up throughout my travels in New Zealand.
There's a peculiar phenomenon that occurs when you first spot a new species: suddenly, it seems they appear everywhere.
And yet, the white basket fungus is no ordinary organism; its peculiar and otherworldly appearance commands attention, drawing the eye like a magnet.
Native to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, with sightings in Chile, and introductions to Africa and England, the white basket fungus might be more aptly referred to as a "stink cage," given its unusual form.
In New Zealand, the Māori people recognized this fungus with over 35 different names, each reflecting some aspect of its enigmatic nature.
Names like tūtaewhatitiri, for instance, allude to its sudden appearance following thunderstorms, while whareatua, or "house of the devil," speaks to the net-like structure of the fungus.
Typically emerging after rain, the white basket fungus, known as tutae kehua or "ghost droppings" in Māori, certainly appears to be the ephemeral leavings of otherworldly beings.
The Māori people even utilized the unopened, egg-shaped fruiting bodies of the fungus as a food source, roasting them in the ashes of a fire or cooking them in a hāngī.
If you're fortunate enough to discover a white basket fungus in prime condition, you can try a unique experiment: hold your nose, carefully insert a round balloon into the basket, and inflate it. Secure the balloon, allowing the basket to dry against its surface, and then pop and remove the balloon. What remains is a fascinating, delicate display of this alien-like fungus.
Thanks for reading Myconeer! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.