Expedition Ecstasy: Sniffing Out The Truth About Hawai‘i’s Orgasm-Inducing Mushroom

By Christie Wilcox | February 14, 2016 7:00 am

It was the moment of truth.

I couldn’t believe I’d actually found it. When John Holliday told me where to look to find the infamous Dictyophora species, I didn’t really believe him—probably because he also claimed this mushroom had some pretty implausible properties. But it was there all the same, right where he said it would be. Countless hours of research and reporting had culminated in this moment. There I was, standing on the remains of an old lava flow, staring at a mushroom that one man claimed could make me orgasm by smell alone.

I bent down, pressing my hands in the soft mulch on either side of the fungus, and let the air out of my lungs. Then I pushed my face next to its orange stalk and breathed in as deeply as I could.


I was on a plane flying back to Honolulu after nearly a month away when a post on Twitter caught my eye. “Women who sniff this Hawaiian mushroom have spontaneous orgasms.” How have I not heard of this?

Curious, I followed the link in the article to another article, which linked to an abstract for a talk given almost fifteen years ago—but the journal’s site was down and all that I could access was the front page for the abstract. I Googled the authors’ names—John C. Holliday and Noah Soule—finding scattered stories about the abstract over the years, but nothing more concrete. The only one which seemed to be based on an actual encounter with the researchers was an article by Ben Sostrin for the newsletter of the Oregon Mycological Society from 2002 titled “Mushrooms and Maui II: Mamalu o Wahine,” the second half of a two part series on Hawaiian mushrooms, which of course I had no access to. I emailed the society contact to see if I could get a copy, and kept looking.

I searched Google Scholar, but there appeared to be no follow up, no complete manuscript. Wikipedia somehow had the number of test subjects — 16 women and 20 men — but no indication where those numbers came from. Oh come on. Flustered, I Googled again, finding every mention of this orgasmic mushroom study. I read every blog post, note, and article—dozens upon dozens of them—all apparently based on the exact same minuscule amount of information.  I finally obtained a copy of the abstract itself:Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 4.31.33 PMIt wasn’t much to go on. But now I was invested—I wanted to know more. I had to know more.

Māmalu o Wahine—the orgasm-inducing Hawaiian mushroom—sounded implausible right off the bat. Yet it would be ill-advised to discount the possibility of local lore identifying a bioactive plant well before modern science. After all, willow branches were chewed for centuries to relieve fever and pain before scientists were able to isolate salicin from its bark—a discovery which led to aspirin. Indigenous cultures have a wealth of knowledge, particularly about local plants and animals, hidden (or not so hidden) in their myths, legends, medical practices, and songs that are passed from generation to generation.

I knew exactly who to ask. “Hey, really random-seeming question: have you ever heard anything about an orgasm-inducing mushroom, maybe related to a fertility ritual or something?” I texted to a Hawaiian friend of mine. As a haole, I’m not as familiar with Hawaiian traditional knowledge, but I figured if the Māmalu o Wahine legend was true, she’d have heard something about it. “In all my memories of terrestrial forestry stuff, I don’t remember anything about any kinds of mushrooms,” she wrote back.

It wasn’t likely that such a legend would have been kept secret, she noted. “Our people were not shy about sexuality. There are many sexual innuendos in things like ‘ōlelo no‘eau and mele (wise sayings and poems and music). We have a good one about crabs.”

I asked if she’d be willing to ask around just in case, and she did. No luck. “Not in my usual channels of ‘ike at least.” [‘ike=knowledge]

I was going to have to dig a little deeper to find the answers I was looking for, so I kept digging.

“I have had over a thousand inquiries over the last week,” said Holliday, clearly agitated. It had been eight days since the science news aggregator IFLS had drudged up the abstract on orgasm-inducing mushrooms, putting millions of pairs of eyes on Holliday & Soule’s abstract. “I have nothing to gain and everything to lose by discussing that paper,” he said to me flatly. “I don’t want any attention focused on that.”

Whether he wanted it or not, a bright spotlight was already shining on Holliday’s nearly fifteen-year-old work. The IFLS post had gone viral with hundreds of thousands of social media shares and who knows how many views. It seemed as if every media outlet in the country, perhaps in the world, wanted to talk to Holliday about mushrooms and orgasms. I had gotten a greenish light to write a piece for a major outlet, but it hinged upon finding a new angle to the story. Since I live in Hawai‘i, I figured I could do something none of the other reporters had tried: go in search of the mushroom and try it on myself.

However, the brief abstract in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms didn’t say where to find the species, only that is was “on recent lava flows 600-10,000 years old.” If I was going to find the mushroom, I needed specifics. I tracked down Noah Soule on Facebook, but it was a dead end—he never answered when I messaged him, and I couldn’t find an email or phone to try. So, I tried John Holliday using the email address on his website. He’d been open to interviews in the past, which made me hopeful:

But Holliday wasn’t eager to talk. “I hear so much crap about this. I saw some stuff written online last year. ‘This was never meant to be believed, it’s just a big hoax.’… Somebody sent me a link yesterday, it’s some lady I don’t even know, I have never heard of her or talked to her, and she is claiming that she talked to me and I told her that it was not legitimate… I don’t want to get myself or the company involved in any discussions of this, because it is too important for a whole bunch of reasons. Commercial reasons, scientific reasons. Reputational reasons. I am a pretty much a world renowned scientist…. When things like that come out that says this is a hoax, a lot of people that believe that. I don’t need that. I spend a lot of years getting to the point where I am. That is why I don’t really want to see anything about this.”

According to Holliday, he also is under a strict confidentiality agreement and therefore cannot discuss the study conducted in any way. He also implied that the research has continued since 2001, and that the pharmaceutical company he was working for (which he wouldn’t name but said was one of “the big ones”) was near to marketing the discovery.  “If I was to say something like ‘We are about to release a blockbuster drug,’ and you go buy stock in this company, then you and I are both guilty of insider trading.”

He was willing, though, to talk about how he had heard of the mushroom and where he’d found it. He wasn’t too hopeful I’d succeed in my quest. The mushroom, he said, disappears by mid-morning. “It is growing in probably the least hospitable environment for mushrooms there is. Direct sunlight, salt spray from the ocean, surrounded by hot black lava rock. The entire life cycle of this mushroom occurs in about four to six hours, from the time that it comes out of the ground until it is withered away and dead and gone.”

“On the lava?” I asked, trying to nail down a specific location.

“Well not on the lava itself. Are you familiar with the term kīpuka?” he asked. Kīpuka are islands of land surrounded by fresh lava flows—oases of growth in a desert of bare rock.

He explained that he first heard of these mushrooms while he was still working in Hawai‘i, before his mushroom-selling business Aloha Medicinals got off the ground and moved to the mainland. As the story goes, one day, Holliday needed an x-ray, and ended up politely chit-chatting with the x-ray technician in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. “She said ‘What do you do?’, and I said ‘I am a mushroom scientist’, and she went, ‘I have to ask you: my mother and I like to go out and sniff mushrooms. Do you think we are crazy?'”

She was reluctant to explain why she and her mother did this, but eventually, she admitted to Holliday that she got a kind of euphoric effect from the smell. “It did not sound real but worth looking into,” Holliday told me. “I talked them into taking me out on their little adventure, and a group of girls on Saturday morning and I went out to Lava Tree State Park and found them. Found one, that is it—they are not common. That one got used up. I took photographs of it, and I posted photographs all around that area, and I put a reward out for this. I got three or four calls, and when I plotted them on the map, they were all within about a two- to three-mile radius around Lava Tree State Park. They were all found either under Albizia trees or Casuarina trees.”

“There you go; that is all I am going to tell you. Have fun.”

My curiosity blossomed into obsession. I re-read every article, and then every comment on each of them. In my hunt for more information, one name kept reappearing: Debbie Viess, founder of the Bay Area Mycological Society. Her comments appeared on every major story about the mushrooms, even those from years ago. In a comment on an older post (several months before the IFLS article), Viess stated that she had a copy of the study itself, and in her words: “I can assure you that the evidence, as presented, was wholly unconvincing. No reputable journal would have published that crap: zero references for statements made, no detailing of study protocol, conclusions made without verification of results. In other words, garbage science, if you can even call it science at all.”

Was this the woman Holliday mentioned, saying he’d never spoken to her? And did she really have a copy of it? I reached out to Viess, and she agreed to talk.

“When I first heard about it, I thought it was preposterous, but I hadn’t read the paper at that point because it’s very hard to find,” she explained. “None of the universities have copies of this journal. I refused to pay $35.00 to read garbage. So the guy actually sent it to me.”

‘The guy’ was John Holliday.

She wasn’t alone in receiving the draft paper. My emails had proven fruitful, and I had received a copy of the original newsletter article for the Oregon Mycological Society by Sostrin; he, too, stated that he had the paper, and seemed to be the source of the numbers in the Wikipedia entry. At least a few people were given a copy over the years—a paper which Holliday now claims he can’t give out. I obtained a copy of the word document from one of them (who shall remain unnamed). Viess confirmed that the document I received was the same one Holliday had sent her.

Though there was no photo in the paper itself, the orgasm-inducing mushroom was described:

The mature Fruit body is from 7 cm to about 20 cm in height, unbranched, with a roughly bell shaped cap tightly attached to the stalk. The stalk itself is very fragile, consisting of soft, sponge-like tissue with numerous holes and chambers within.

The Stipe is hollow, typically 2 – 3 cm in diameter and nearly cylindrical. It is often bent away from the prevailing winds. The color of the stalk is bright orange when found in the forests and deserts away from the ocean, and a brilliant pink to pinkish-purple when found in the salt-spray zone.

Dictyophora species, like other members of the family Phallaceae, are quite distinctively (if inappropriately) shaped. The group is also known by the common name stinkhorns, referring to their notorious stench. Thanks the paper, I now had a complete visual to hunt for, including color.

The text raised new questions, though. According to the published abstract, the fungus I sought grows on lava rock. “It is often found on the cliff edges above the ocean, where it is consistently exposed to salt spray from the breaking waves below,” the paper states, details confirmed by Holliday himself during a talk at the 2014 Telluride Mushroom Fest (“hot, black, rocky lava flows right above the ocean in the saltwater surf zone.”). I called an old mycology professor of mine at UH, Nicole Hynson, and asked her what she thought about a fungus growing on the bare rock. She said it was biologically unlikely—that’s just not a place this kind of fungi would grow. “Dictyophora are saprotrophic, so they depend upon organic matter for survival. On recent flows, there isn’t organic matter — there isn’t a lot of soil, period.”

Not exactly where you expect to find mushrooms. Photo by Christie Wilcox

Not exactly where you expect to find mushrooms. Photo by Christie Wilcox

What made far more sense what was what Holliday had said over the phone: to search in a forested state park, specifying which trees to look under. And parts of the paper, too, seem to suggest the fungus is found in the woods. “There is an ancient legend in the Hawaiian Islands of a mushroom with very peculiar properties,” states the paper’s background section. “This legend tells of women who encounter this mushroom in the forest and go into fits of sexual ecstasy.” I didn’t want to waste my efforts looking in the wrong place.

“We’ll just have to search both habitats,” Jake said, as we planned our trip. I decided that if I was going in search of an orgasm-inducing mushroom, I should probably bring my boyfriend, Jake Buehler, along with me. In part, he would serve as the control—after all, all the men tested found the smell repulsive, so having him there could validate its non-orgasmic effect on men. But more importantly, I figured that if I was falling into climaxing fits in the middle of the woods or while out on the barren rocks somewhere, it would be prudent to have someone else there to keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t hurt myself in the throes of ecstasy.

I didn’t have a commitment for travel funds, so I was footing the bill for the trip myself. I cashed in my Hawaiian Airlines miles for two roundtrip tickets and booked a rental car. I emailed everyone I know who lives on the Big Island, and found a fellow science writer willing to let us crash at her place in Kona. Jake and I gave ourselves four days to find the mythical mushroom.

We arrived at the Hilo airport at 5:52 AM, about half an hour before sunrise, and headed straight to Lava Tree State Monument.

The Story of Makealani and Kepa’a, and how the God’s smiled down on all the people…

Makealani, who was the daughter of the great King Kupakani, enjoyed walking in the forest by herself. Early in the morning, while the dew was still on the grass, she would take her basket and go up into the hills. She picked the fragrant flowers as she walked, and watched the beautiful birds flitting from tree to tree. This was her favorite time of the day. Alone, she could dream, as young girls will, of the husband she would have and the children she would raise.

One day, when she had just turned 16 years old, she smelled a strange and wonderful odor as she walked through the moist, early morning forest. A smell that brought strange visions into her mind. Delightful visions of Kepa’a, the son of her fathers friend, Noa. She was shocked at the things she imagined herself doing with this young man. She tried to stop, tried to turn back. But she could not. Like a moth drawn to a candle flame, she was driven on. Step by step, as she got closer to the source of the smell, her imaginings became wilder and more abandoned.

Finally, she found the source of the smell. Shining brightly with the early morning dew, there it was. The most beautiful plant she had ever seen. Not like the other plants, but instead, just a single stalk rising up from the forest floor. Orange and pink, with a fine skirt hanging down to the ground. And the smell, at once both repulsive and attractive, she had to smell more of it. With a racing heart she knelt down to get a better smell , but was suddenly overcome with feelings such as she had never had before. Wave after wave of incredible ecstasy, rolling over her like the warmest honey. Falling to the ground, she was once again with Kepa’a in her mind. Her lover.

Rushing back to the village, running like the wind, she could not wait to fall into his arms. She felt that she must have him. When she arrived at his house, she did not hesitate. Tearing her cloths off, she flung herself onto him urgently.

The rest is well known, how Makealani and Kepa’a became man and wife. Raising a large family, who went on to become the rulers of Rarotonga. In this way, the Gods smiled down on the people, starting the royal family which was to rule so wisely for over 400 years. Only when the gods are pleased will they bring forth this magical plant, the Mamalu o Wahine, the plant that makes women go mad with desire. Only if a woman leads a good and virtuous life, will the God’s reward her with this special treat. A special plant, just for her pleasure.

“Makealani doesn’t mean anything. Is it maybe Māhealani with an h?” my friend replied to my text asking about the names in the legend in the paper. “Kepa’a doesn’t sound familiar either :(”

“Also, I’ve never heard of using baskets for gathering.”

I called every traditional Hawaiian health practitioner I could find from Honolulu to Hilo, but none had ever heard of using mushrooms for any traditional purpose, let alone as an aphrodisiac. One actually hung up on me when I asked about orgasmic properties. Others laughed. According to the paper, the mushrooms are well known throughout Polynesia, including Hawai‘i. So why was it so hard for me to find anyone who seems to have heard of them?

Refusing to be deterred, I sent emails to scholars of Hawaiian and Polynesian history, looking for information about the characters mentioned in the tale. No one I talked to had ever heard of King Kupakani, let alone the main characters. According to Kalena Silva, professor of Hawaiian Language & Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and the world authority on Hawaiian traditional knowledge, the characters don’t exist in Hawaiian orature or literature. And that’s not the only thing wrong. The story uses Hawaiian-language names, but supposedly takes place in Rarotonga, where Cook Islands Māori is spoken. No ancient Hawaiians ever ruled in the Cook Islands. And “a real Hawaiian story would include at least one specific place name associated with the mushroom.”

But perhaps the biggest red flag is the mushroom’s name itself. “The purported name of the mushroom is grammatically incorrect,” Silva wrote in an email to fellow professor at UH Hilo, Don Hemmes. “The name appears to be a contrived, ungrammatical attempt at “Māmalu (the mushroom) of the woman/of women” which would be correctly worded in Hawaiian, “Māmalu o ka Wahine.” The purported name would only be grammatically correct if the meaning were “Māmalu of Wahine (the name of the person whose mushroom it is)”. But this would sound odd and doesn’t seem likely.”

Then, I got a response from Larry Kimura, an associate professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. According to him, the use of the word māmalu for mushroom is relatively recent. The oldest word for mushroom is kūkaelio, or “horse dung”, for where fungi were first noted to grow. That word wasn’t co-opted until after horses were brought to the islands, which was after European contact. And now, a different word is more popular. “Other native speakers of Hawaiian have more recently coined a newer Hawaiian word noticing that some western fairy tale books have pictures depicting elfs playing among / on top of mushrooms and have taken the Hawaiian word for these supernatural, small, elusive figures—menehune—and made a slight change to the pronunciation to come up with a new word for mushroom—melehune—in its fairy tale association with the Hawaiian word for elf,” Kimura explained. In part, the new name makes mushrooms sound more appealing as foods to a people who are culturally unaccustomed to eating them. “It’s better to eat melehune verses kūkaelio (horse dung) or even māmalu (umbrella),” Kimura wrote.

“Now, what then is the old Hawaiian word for mushroom?,” Kimura rhetorically asked. “Evidently we have lost that word, if we even had one.”

One of the last things in the email from Silva suddenly seemed even more poignant.

“Whoever made up this story knows little, if anything, about the peoples and cultures of Polynesia.”

It was just after sunrise when Jake and I pulled into the small parking lot for Lava Tree State Monument. Dark clouds hung overhead, and everything was wet from a fresh rainfall.

The park’s main attractions are the volcanic features called “lava trees.” These tubes of hardened lava rock form as a molten lava juts up against trees; at first, the tree is large and cool enough that lava piles up around it. But eventually, the wood burns away, leaving a cylindrical, tree-shaped hole of hardened rock. The park is a popular stop for those headed out to the beaches and briny pools in Pāhoa. The lot itself has only a couple dozen spaces, and thus is quickly overwhelmed with vehicles during the day. But this early in the morning, it was completely empty. I’d never been to a public park in Hawai‘i that wasn’t swarming with tourists; it was a nice change of pace.

Lava trees on either side of the short, well-groomed trail at Lava Tree State Monument. Photo by Christie Wilcox

Lava trees on either side of the short, well-kept trail at Lava Tree State Monument. Photo by Christie Wilcox

We yanked on our hiking boots, grabbed our cameras and water bottles, and set out in search of mushrooms. No more than five minutes into our quest, it began to sprinkle. We pressed on, slowly meandering along the trail, stopping to scout for stinkhorns under every Albizia or Casuarina. When the rain intensified, we huddled under a sheltered picnic area until it lightened up. We found several mushroom species, but nothing even remotely like Dictyophora. The sky was beginning to clear, and soon, the sun would be beating down on the wet earth, and according to the paper, our fungi would start to disappear. About 45 minutes in, I was starting to lose hope.

Jake suddenly stopped. “Do you smell that?” he asked.

“Smell what?” I asked.

“There’s a lingering smell of jizz…” he said, moving his head around and sniffing in an attempt to locate the source. Then he stopped briefly, pulled his shirt to his nose and sniffed. “It’s definitely not me,” he said confidently.

My jaw dropped. I hadn’t yet mentioned to Jake that Holliday had specifically described the mushroom’s scent. To him, and presumably other males, he told me that the fungus smelled like semen. We must be close.

“Follow your nose, Jake!” I said, excited. Like a bloodhound with a scent, he tracked the smell.

The scent of stinkhorns is infamous. In his 1986 book Mushrooms Demystified, David Arora has this to say about them:

Whether or not stinkhorns are handsome or repulsive has been the subject of considerable debate. The verdict seems to rest largely on personal prejudice and one’s ability to overlook their obnoxious odor an the swarms of blowflies that come to wallow in their spore slime. They are undeniably phallic, however, and as might be expected, their suggestiveness has given rise to a veritable “mother lode” of stinkhorn lore. For instance, German hunters believed they grew where stags rutted, and it is said that their putrid carcasses are burned outside houses in Thailand to discourage unwanted guests (a rather drastic practice that might discourage wanted guests as well!).

… And of course, they’ve been employed as aphrodisiacs, and are supposedly still given to cattle for that purpose in some parts of Europe.

He goes on to quote an “astonishing passage” from “an otherwise tedious book of Victorian reminiscences by Gwen Raverat,” in which Raverat described how her “Aunt Etty” (Charles Darwin’s daughter, Henrietta) used to collect stinkhorns in the forest.

… armed with a basket and pointed stick, and wearing special hunting cloak and gloves, she would sniff her way round the wood, pausing here and there, her nostrils twitching, when she caught a whiff of her prey; then at last, with a deadly pounce, she would fall upon her victim, and then poke his putrid carcass into her basket. At the end of the day’s sport, the catch was brought back and burnt in the deepest secrecy on the drawing-room fire, with the door locked, because of the morals of the maids.

What did she mean by those last words, “because of the morals of the maids” (italics Arora’s)? What exactly was Aunt Etty doing with the stinkhorns? Was she removing them before the young girls could be corrupted by their phallic appearance, or doing something “maids” shouldn’t see? Is Raverat’s passage the first documented example of fungi-induced orgasm?

Is smell-induced arousal even biologically possible?

It’s not surprising that Phallaceae mushrooms would be associated with sex, given their shape and smell (people tended to imbue anything even remotely phallic—bananas, asparagus, rhino horns—with virility). The stinkhorns’ unmistakable scents come from volatile organic compounds with apt names like putrescine and cadaverdine. These compounds are emitted by rotting flesh and feces, which is exactly what the fungi are going for: the nauseating smell attracts flies which spread the fungal spores. And while men might not like the scent of their biological fluids compared to decomposing bodies or droppings, the fact is, human semen contains the same class of compounds. The compound spermine, for example, was so named because it was first discovered in 1677 by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in human semen—and it has been detected in odorous fungi. The similarities between the smell of semen and the stench of death or dung are why some stinkhorns are reputed to smell like ejaculate.

While there is a not-insignificant body of literature on how people respond to the scents of bodily fluids (usually in search of elusive human pheromones), surprisingly little of it examines the smell of semen. Semen is not generally considered a pleasant odor, though people’s opinions on that vary greatly. And there is some evidence to support the idea of scent-induced stimulation: the smell of a compound found in semen, called androstadienone, is arousing to women, for example. But it doesn’t cause them to orgasm on the spot, nor could I find any studies that have looked at the effects of a complete bouquet of seminal scents. I have to admit I laughed imagining the scientific process to obtain such data—I wonder if it’s difficult to get ethics board approval for a study where people go around sniffing each other’s sexual fluids while being monitored for arousal.

And there’s no good explanation for the sex difference, either. There are sex differences in olfaction, but differences of degree, not kind (women score higher than men on tests of odor sensitivity, perception, and discrimination). There’s no odor that all men universally say is foul that all women adore, or vice versa. To quote psychologist, cognitive neuroscientist, and world-renowned expert on the science of smell Rachel Herz, “in the many studies I have conducted and the numerous others that I have read, I have never observed any systematic sex differences in basic odor preference evaluations.”

Besides, studies have shown that our likes or dislikes of scents are strongly influenced by our experiences; most (if not all) smells aren’t universally “good” or “bad.” If they were, then infants would be attracted or repulsed by the same odors as adults—but they aren’t. Childhood experiences, cultural influences, and individuals associations all factor into what scents a person prefers. What about that compound in semen that women find attractive? Turns out even its pleasantness is influenced by the sniffer’s sexual experiences.

But more to the point, I find it hard to believe that an orgasm-inducing scent would remain hidden for so long. Arousal is one thing—there are lots of things that put us horny Homo sapiens in the mood. But even drugs like Viagra or Cialis only aid in obtaining erection; further actions are required to induce ejaculation. There are no compounds, for men or women, that induce climax when ingested, let alone smelled. Given our species’ preoccupation with sex (Rule 34 and all), the dearth of orgasm-inducing substances certainly isn’t for a lack of trying.

Back in July 2015, Debbie Viess contacted John Holliday through the Aloha Medicinals site. Holliday replied, and attached was a copy of a word document. Viess read the draft paper, but was disappointed to find it contained no scientific references and scant information on the study itself. She replied to Holliday, asking a series of questions about the methods, subjects, and references, including his source for the legend of Māmalu o Wahine.

Immediately, Holliday clamped up. “Unfortunately, I was employed by a major pharmaceutical company when we did this work, and they are still pursuing the active compounds as a drug. I am under a pretty strict NDA [non-disclosure agreement], so unfortunately, I am unable to answer your questions regarding this line of enquiry,” he wrote back.

Viess was unimpressed, and the exchange turned sour. When she accused him of misconduct, Holliday replied with an extensive email more than 1000 words long. He claimed that when he submitted the abstract, they hadn’t finished the human tests. By the time the conference was actually held, the initial trial results were in, and they were so clear-cut that the company restricted what Holliday could say—hence the reference-free paper draft, or so Holliday claimed. And further, he stated that he had no monetary investment in the upcoming product, and that he had no hand in any research on the mushrooms since 2001.

He went on to defend the idea that the smell of a mushroom could induce an orgasm. “Your earlier email stated that Don Hemmits [sic] has reported that some of his students have vomited when they smell stinkhorns: Well, imagine that, a physiological response from sniffing a mushroom. Elevating blood pressure, elevated respiration and heart beat, resulting in voiding the stomach contents. Physiological response triggered by the smell of a mushroom. If you accept that, why do you find it so unbelievable that other physiological response is possible?”

Viess didn’t buy it. She wrote him one last biting reply, and hasn’t spoken to him since.

When I chatted with her, months after the interaction, she was still livid. “This was all done for money. It was based on the most specious nonsense,” she said over the phone. “It’s reprehensible. Truly.” She recounted to me her experiences with Holliday as well as what she had found researching the mushroom for herself—conclusions she has since submitted as an article for Mushroom: The Journal of Wild Mushrooming.

“I might add, he is not a mycologist. His doctorate is from some unnamed Chinese university. Normally if you get a honorary doctorate you actually mention where it’s from. Honorary doctorates are only valid on the university grounds where you got them. It doesn’t make you a Ph.D. in something. It’s a token.”

Left: Drawings of stinkhorns and their relatives (E. Haekel); Middle: Dictyophora multicolor (Diorit); Right: Dictyophora indusiatus (Halady)

Left: Drawings of stinkhorns and their relatives (E. Haeckel); Middle: Dictyophora multicolor (Diorit); Right: Dictyophora indusiatus (Halady)

Don Hemmes is one of Hawai‘i’s premier mycologists. He started teaching at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo in 1973, and in 2009, he coauthored a monograph on the stinkhorns of Hawai‘i which was published in Fungi. He explained to me that there are three species of Dictyophora in Hawai‘i (synonymous with Phallus to most mycologists), which can be distinguished by the color of their net-like structures: D. multicolor, which has a lemon yellow net, D. atrovolvatus, which has a white net, and D. cinnabarina, which has the orangish-pink net as described in the paper by Holliday & Soule.

D. cinnabarina has likely been on the islands for at least a century, as it was probably the mushroom mistakenly reported by Nathan Cobb from Pepeekeo along the Hamakua Coast of Hawai‘i Island as Dictyophora indusiatus in 1907. Still, these mushrooms are relatively new imports (brought in by foreigners in the early part of the 19th century); they aren’t found on the other seven main Hawaiian islands, nor are they common on Hawai‘i. The white netted D. atrovolvatus was only spotted about five years ago, so that species may be an even more recent arrival.

Hemmes has studied the fungi of Hawai‘i extensively, and has been deeply embedded in the mycological community on the Big Island for decades, and yet the 2001 abstract was a complete surprise to him. “I’ve never heard of any women here, or anyone here, using these mushrooms as aphrodisiacs,” he said.

Jake and I were sitting in the Hemmes’ home office, which overlooked the vibrant, green garden in back of his Hilo home, while he told us what he knew of the orgasm mushroom. “All I know is the mycology,” he said, but he’d inquired with others more well-versed in the cultural aspects. His fellow mycologists had never heard anyone call the smell of Dictyophora pleasant, let alone arousing. No one he talked to in Hawai‘i had ever heard of the supposedly common mushroom legend, nor did they know of any uses for mushrooms in traditional Hawaiian culture, not even the “magic” kinds (which makes sense, given that hallucinogenic mushrooms didn’t make their way to the islands until the substrate they grow in—ungulate dung—did around 1810).

“In Mexico and Central America, there’s a lot of use of magic mushrooms to foresee the future and to talk to dead relatives, that kind of thing. This is all very well known,” said Hemmes. “But not in Hawai‘i.” Mushrooms also weren’t a part of the Hawaiian menu, so there seems to be no basis for any cultural connection between mushrooms and Native Hawaiians, which led Hemmes to believe the so-called legend was “fabricated.”

My friend had come to the same conclusion. “Honestly, I’m used to people making stuff up about Hawaiian culture. Especially when it comes to mystical plants.”

Hemmes has never met Holliday, but he knows of him, and has for decades. One of his former students worked with Holliday around the time the abstract was published, just prior to enrolling at UH Hilo. Hemmes recommended I talk to this old student of his, as they were there at the time of the study and could speak to what really happened. But when I reached out to the student, I got no response.

A week and a half or so after the initial hype, outlets began publishing critical analyses. “Can a rare Hawaiian mushroom really give women a “spontaneous orgasm”? Not likely, sorry.” begins ScienceAlert’s coverage. The author, Bec Crew, concludes with “until some definitive studies are published on the biology of scent-triggered orgasms, we’re not going to hold our breath.”

“Bad News For Women Who Want Those Orgasm-Inducing Mushrooms,” touts Carla Herreria’s piece for The Huffington Post. Gizmodo‘s Diane Kelly spoke to many of the same sources I did, and concluded: “In short, the available evidence all points to the same conclusion. This mushroom study stinks.”

Boing Boing‘s Mark Frauenfelder took a more playful route when skeptical comments piled up on his initial post. His update is titled “We prefer to live in a world where the orgasm-inducing Hawaiian lava mushroom is real.” While he admitted the science was shaky (and that Snopes declared it “unproven”), he made special note that “None of our readers have, as far as I know, sniffed the mushroom.”

With all of these rebuttals from mainstream outlets, my investigative pitch lost its luster. But I had gone too far down the rabbit hole to turn around—I wasn’t going to give up without at least trying to find it and smell it for myself.

We attempted to follow Jake’s nose for about a half an hour, but were unable to locate the source of the semenesque scent. So we decided to move on and keep looking further along the trail. The odor lingered as we walked.

We soon came upon a clearing of sorts with piles of mulch and fallen branches. It was the perfect habitat for Dictyophora. 

Look closely... Photo by Christie Wilcox

Look closely… Photo by Christie Wilcox

And then there it was. Just right there. I almost stepped on the first stinkhorn I saw.

“JAKE!” I screamed. “JAKE I FOUND ONE.”

He rushed over. For a moment, we both stood in silence, staring at the phallic fungus. Then he turned to me. “OK, so… I guess you should sniff it,” he said. I nodded. Slowly, I dropped to my knees. I closed my eyes and took a breath. I placed my hands in the soft mulch on either side of the fungus, and let the air out of my lungs. Then, I pushed my face next to its orange stalk and breathed in as deeply as I could.

My physiological reaction was immediate and strong. In less than a heartbeat I was on my feet, staggering backwards, gagging.

“Are you OK?” Jake asked, concerned, as he rushed to my side. The taste was in my mouth. It was in my throat. This disgusting, foul, rottenness—there are no words that adequately describe the vile stench. Tears formed in my eyes. I nearly vomited. Though I had read about how bad stinkhorns smell, I really wasn’t expecting something that… awful.

It was, hands down, the worst smell that’s ever violated my nostrils. I swear it was worse than the rotten “slimer” manatee carcass I helped dissect as an intern in a marine mammal forensics lab. Worse than the combination of algal toxins and dead fish that comprised the air off Casey Key during a massive red tide event. What did it smell like, exactly? I guess if I had to put a name to the odor, the closest I can come up with is semen, but this was not the healthy biological fluid fresh from a male donor—more like fermented, decomposing semen. Or diseased, fetid semen. Maybe what the semen from a zombie would smell like. Yes, that’s it—zombie spooge! That’s what it smelled like. If anyone’s semen smells like that mushroom, then they need to see a doctor, stat.

I took a couple minutes to compose myself, then I looked up at Jake and grinned.

“Your turn,” I said.

“Just little over half of women will have an immediate and massive response,” Holliday explained on the phone. The other half, he said, will think “This smells like crap.” According to his hypothesis, the women who orgasm from the smell of the mushroom are those equipped with a functioning vomeronasal organ (VNO). “It is found in about fifty five percent of humans,” he noted. “The same percentage of women that had a positive response to the smell of this.”

So, perhaps, I do not have a “functioning” VNO.

But as I looked deeper into the science of pheromones and vomeronasal organs, Holliday’s arguments started to unravel. There’s considerable debate about whether humans even have the organ as adults (our relatives, the great apes, don’t), and if we do, then it’s not found in only 55% of people. A 2001 review stated that most adults (or at least those without septum damage) have vomeronasal organ structures, citing studies that found more than 90% of people had “some evidence of at least one VNO pit.” They concluded that, based on the evidence, “There is an adult human VNO.” (For the record, having a VNO doesn’t mean we sense using pheromones. The review authors were clear to point out “Use of the word organ in this context does not presuppose function.” The pits could be vestigial.)

The 55% figure also is irksome because it’s not what was written in the abstract or the paper. To directly quote:

Smell Test: In an attempt to confirm or deny the reputed sexual stimulatory effects, we offered a fresh specimen up for sniffing to a number of randomly chosen subjects, both male and female. Out of 20 males that tried out the smell, all twenty found it repulsive and declined any further testing. It was described by all male test subjects as disgusting, putrid, nauseating. No physiological responses were noted in any of the male test subjects.

Female test subjects were a different matter though. The first 4 women that smelled this Fruitbody experienced immediate, spontaneous and profound orgasms. They also exhibited racing pulse, radical increase in blood pressure and flushing of the skin. With such intense physical reactions, it was thought best to approach the test cautiously, lest someone have an adverse cardiac reaction to the obviously strong physiological agents present. Another 12 female test subjects were allowed to smell the fresh fruitbody, but only in much reduced quantities. Only a small portion of the Fruitbody was used in these subsequent tests, or fruit bodies that were several days refrigerated. In each of these tests subjects, some physiological response was noted, the most common response being an immediate increase in heart rate. Of the total of 16 females that smelled this mushroom, 6 experienced orgasm, and the other 10 did not. It appears from these preliminary test results that the effect is probably dose-related.

According to those data, 37.5% of women orgasmed (the initial four and two others), while the rest experienced “some physiological response,” most commonly “an immediate increase in heart rate.” There was no mention of any women finding the smell displeasing or repulsive—certainly not 45% of them.

“It’s not that bad,” Jake said, his face next to the phallic orange mushroom. “Maybe you’re smelling something else on the ground? You should pick it up and check.”

Reluctantly, I bend over and pick up the specimen. Jake took a series of photos as I took another deep whiff:

View post on imgur.com

Definitely the mushroom. After forcing Jake to manhandle the foul thing and take his own second whiff (“Not an enjoyable smell, but not gag-inducing” he claimed), we scouted the area, and found several more fruiting Dictyophora cinnabarina and many of their “eggs” (ready to sprout). Their intricate netting, brilliant sunset hues—if it weren’t for the putrid smell, I’d probably find them quite charming.

“You know, Christie. We should do this a little more scientifically,” Jake began. “The study said sniffing increased heart rate, right? We could see if that much is true.” We went back to the car and sketched out a plan for a quick, controlled experiment. We would measure our heart rate before and after sniffing the mushrooms (sample size of three) and a control (a lava tree). Our smell trials would last 30 seconds, with our noses six inches from the item being sniffed (hopefully to weaken the scent a little). With our protocol ready, we walked back. We could smell the faintest hint of stinkhorn from almost 50 yards away.

Once back in the area, we took our preliminary heart rates — Jake’s was 84 beats per minute, mine was 104. My heart rate already seems elevated, I noted. Regardless, we continued with the plan, performing our control smell test. After a 30 second lava tree sniff, Jake’s heart rate was 92, mine 106.

Then it was time for the real test. Jake went first—his heart rate was back down at 84 beats per minute pre-test. After 30 seconds of delightful Dictyophora odor, it was 106. He waited five minutes, then performed the second mushroom smell test: 90 before, 96 after. And the third: 86 before, 92 after. “Seems about the same as the control,” he affirmed.

It was my turn. Before: 106 beats per minute. I made sure to keep my nose 6 inches away from the stalk, and inhaled deeply on Jake’s cue, but the smell was unbearable. The offensive miasma enveloped my entire being instantly. It assaulted my pitifully defenseless mucus membranes, coating them with an unavoidable perfume of decay. I started gagging uncontrollably. “Jake—” I gasped in between heaves. “I can’t—” 

I pulled up, covering my mouth with my hand. I’d only lasted 15 seconds. We checked my heart rate anyway: 120 beats per minute, possibly indicative of a quick increase. “I’m not doing it again,” I said weakly.

My heart kept racing. Even ten minutes later, I felt nauseous, weak, and slightly out of breath. The smell lingered in my nostrils. “That’s it,” Jake said firmly. “Let’s get you somewhere with cleaner air.” He held my waist as we walked back to the car.

(I would later learn that my reaction isn’t unheard of—Jeff Mitton, a professor of ecology at Colorado State University, noted that “The smell is so bad that some people have mentioned a sense of panic in close proximity with a stinkhorn.”)

We sat in the rental car for a little bit, chatting about the results. I certainly had a strong reaction to the fungus, but I was about as far from turned on as physically possible. There was also a big difference between Jake’s response and mine, albeit in the wrong direction (he was supposed to be the one repulsed). Was this indicative of what Holliday had claimed—differential responses to the smell based on sex?

We didn’t have enough data to say, Jake noted. There are too many other explanations for why he and I reacted differently. He and I have known differences in taste preferences, for example; when I was a teaching assistant for Genetics, I learned that I’m a strong taster of PTC (a bitter compound) while Jake is a non-taster. In general, he enjoys the taste of bitter things like IPA beers that I find revolting. Smell and taste, though often talked about as separate senses, are both chemoreception—the sensing of chemical compounds—and often go hand in hand (that’s why you can’t taste food when your nose is stuffed). So perhaps we possess enough taste receptor differences, a factor unrelated to being male or female, to explain why I gagged uncontrollably while his senses were merely inconvenienced.

“Or maybe,” Jake said with a mischievous glint in his eye, “there’s something wrong with you.”

Excuse you?”

“Maybe most women would be aroused by the smell, and you’re just weird. We should have collected some of the mushrooms. We could have run a controlled trial with our friends,” he said with a grin.

I glared playfully. “You really think we should try to get everyone we know to sniff those things?”

“Yes! A bigger sample size! Science!”

“No, Jake,” I said firmly. “I like having friends.”

As the flight attendants conducted their final walk through prior to take off, I stared out the plane window into the darkness and breathed a heavy sigh.

“You know what I don’t get, Christie?” Jake said. “The whole non-disclosure agreement thing. If Holliday really wanted no one to talk about the 2001 abstract, why was he speaking about the study as a part of a public mushroom festival in 2014? He brought it up thirteen years after the fact, then gets upset when other people bring it up again a year later? That’s B.S. And why did he give out the paper at all over the years, let alone several times? It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Nor does the idea that the paper has no references because of an NDA,” he continued. “If he was under a gag order, then even a referenceless draft which described the study would still be too much information to be handing out, wouldn’t it?”

“It does seem fishy,” I replied. “So what do you think happened?”

“Even if he did do the study, there’s no way it was prompted by a real Hawaiian legend. Maybe he pissed off some locals and they made it up to get him to sniff stinky mushrooms,” Jake said with a laugh. “Or maybe he hoped to sell the mushrooms as an aphrodisiac, and when the conference talk didn’t go over too well, he gave up on it. Or maybe it was a hoax or a joke that got out of hand, but then it was too late to admit it.”

I thought about Noah Soule and Hemmes former student, both of whom had the answers I so desperately sought. If the trial was fake from the get-go, they would know what motivated Holliday to lie and then double down on his deceit. Or if the trial really did happen, they could fill in the blanks, explaining why there seemed to be so many holes in the story—the Hawaiian legend that never was, the changing location and substrate where the mushroom grows, or the physiological implausibility of a smell causing men to be repulsed and women to climax

“I guess we’ll never know,” I said sadly.

To be honest, I was disappointed. After all of the research I had conducted, I knew that there was no reason to believe the Hawaiian orgasm fungus was real. Everything about it had fallen apart upon scrutiny. I knew that the discrepancies within Holliday’s own testimony were troubling, and that biologically, the idea of a smell-induced orgasm was a stretch at best.

But I wanted it to be true. A small piece of me had hoped that I would find the smell pleasing, if not a little bit arousing. I wanted to suspend disbelief. I, too, wanted to live in a world where the orgasm fungus exists.

I still do.



Apologies to Ernst Haeckel, whose name I misspelled in the photo caption the first time around. That typo and a couple others have been corrected.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts
  • The Cryptkeeper

    Spoiler alert: it doesn’t exist.

    • Piste

      But for women everywhere, its a bummer. If science ever came up with a real women’s Viagara, it would be on perpetual back-order.

  • lump1

    I hope that the rest of your stay on Maui was more pleasant than the “science” you volunteered for! Thank you for a great investigative article, I think it’s enough to put this myth to rest.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    As with a princess kissing frogs, only the most beautiful and worthy of women will be embraced by Māmalu o Wahine or clomipramine, trazodone, rasagiline, cabergoline…. Better living though chemistry (DuPont being recently eaten by Dow and candyflipped). Everybody else gets a dose of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis.

    • OWilson

      I thought I was in the wrong mag there for a moment.

      I mean, that opening picture!

      The lady going down to a mushroom, seeking the orgasm effect? :)

  • http://www.RNA-mediated.com jvkohl

    This report from Cori Bargmann’s group may help to explain differences in responses to chemical signals. “Distinct Circuits for the Formation and Retrieval of an Imprinted Olfactory Memory”

    They linked the claim that “Feedback loops link odor and pheromone signaling with reproduction” from microbes to humans via experience-dependent learning and memory in the model organism C. elegans.

    The feedback loops linked everything currently known to serious scientists about RNA-mediated cell type differentiation from soil bacteria to fertility in bulls via nutrient-dependent base pair changes, amino acids substitutions and this report: “The Bull Sperm MicroRNAome and the Effect of Fescue Toxicosis on Sperm MicroRNA Expression.”

    But clearly, you care nothing about the science. You just want to ridicule the works that link biophysically constrained nutrient-dependent RNA-mediated cell type differentiation from atoms to ecosystems in all living genera. Don’t you?

    • Mooster75

      For those of you who are unaware, ‘jvkohl’ makes his living selling that “pheromone sexual attractant” spray and seems to spend most of his time making online attacks on whoever threatens his scam.

      • ostracion

        I like how every single comment of his is basically word salad made up of gross misapplication of a myriad of science terms. Like he found a biology textbook, cut out all the vocabulary words, put them in a jar, and wrote his comments as he reached in and pulled them out by random. It’s bizarre.

        • http://www.RNA-mediated.com jvkohl

          See also: “RNA modification discovery suggests new code for control of gene expression” February 16, 2016 http://phys.org/news/2016-02-rna-letter-gene.html

          I am the founder of RNA-mediated.com

          • http://www.RNA-mediated.com jvkohl

            Also, see: C. elegans lifespan extension by osmotic stress requires FUdR, base excision repair, FOXO, and sirtuins http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047637416300045

            Everything learned about cell type differentiation from the model organism C. elegans may be missing information on stress-initiated RNA-mediated DNA repair, which alters the knowledge base associated with gene-editing technologies.

  • Jeff See

    Tl;DR; once your teaser stopped where it did and I noticed how tiny the scroll marker was, (denoting a horrendously long PageDown), I scrolled to the bottom to see what you found.

    • ostracion

      If you don’t like long-form posts, there are other formats that might match your attention level better, and cut to the chase without all that “reading” stuff thrown in the way. Twitter is a good place to start. Or pop-up books.

      • Jeff See

        Oh wow, a reply from a comedian; how neat-o!

        I don’t mind reading, until it’s a shit-ton of boring drivel, like the ridiculously long post, or short but hardly interesting responses such as yours. The good news about the short boring ones is the knowledge that the exposure to mediocrity is short lived, and easily forgetten.

        • ostracion

          Thank you! I’m actually very, very funny.
          Almost as funny as the irony of how you took the time out of your busy day to spend precious time whining about how long and boring and time-consuming the blog post was, even though you are under no requirement to even be here reading it in the first place.

          Maybe you should write a (brief) critique in your own 50,000+ monthly viewer blog instead of in the comment section of someone else’s piece. Oh wait…

          • Jeff See

            Oh yes; because I haven’t done it, that means all others that have been done could never possibly be boring drivel.

            The idea that participating here takes effort enough to really cost “time out of my busy day” says more about you than me.

          • ostracion

            Whatever you say, Jeff.

          • Jeff See

            The thing is, if you had an actual argument against the fact that it was boring drivel, we could have had a legitimate debate about it. Instead, you chose to be insulting in a personal attack, even though I hadn’t insulted anyone initially.

  • Jeff Stone

    Well, at least I learned that this author really needs to get more aerobic exercise! :)

  • http://christiewilcox.com/ Christie Wilcox

    Not deliberately misspelled! I fixed it.

  • commenter8

    Excellent article, very well written! Thanks! :)

  • Rocketplumber
  • Corporate Serf

    Purported female aphrodisiacs with a phallic appearance are immediately suspect given the sensibilities of observers before formal science was invented.

  • Toto Luz

    That is one desperate woman.

    • debbie viess

      Ah idiocy is alive and well!

      That is one good scientist, who put herself on the line to discover the truth, and wrote an interesting and quite readable account for the rest of us. What have you done for the world lately?

      I do love toucans, though, so that’s one for your side. Otherwise, sexist drivel.

      Back to the jungle for you, ’til you learn some parlor manners!

  • tech33

    I find the author’s investigation as troubling as she finds the original account. She clearly experienced *some* physiological response and because it’s not the right one she condemns everything outright? The paper clearly mentions that it was a *minority* of women that had an orgasm. She of all people should know that a sample of one does not a study make. Why did she not listen to her friend Jake? Also it is presumptious if not arrogant to assume that she knows the specific mechanism that this might would work by. It’s not that I want to see this work (as apparently was her acknowledged bias) but I would appreciate a more thorough and scientific investigation perhaps ala Mythbuster’s style. As it is I have no idea what is happening here. Which is very unsatisfying in that respect.

    • debbie viess

      So, all physiological responses should be treated as if they are the same? Hardly scientific or reasonable. The original Holliday sample size, not to mention study protocol, were also insufficient for drawing firm conclusions, and yet, the wealth of evidence as shown both here and in my paper clearly debunks the story as portrayed by Holliday.

      For another analysis of this so-called study and its profit directed perceived results, see my article in M the J: “Sex and the Single Stinkhorn.” Christie linked to it early on in her article. Here it is again:


      If you don’t want to read it in its entirely, scroll down to these two sections, which deal directly with your above questions:

      “Salacious Speculation, Mysterious Methodology” and “Interpretation of Ambiguous Results.”

      Holliday himself made the analogies to both the VNO and animal hormones produced by fungi as a way to explain why women had “orgasms.” Both tacks were completely off-kilter and proved nothing.The truth is out there, if you want to read what we both have researched, or better yet, go to my original sources and do the work yourself!

      Discovering the truth takes more than an online article read and a quick toss-off comment.

  • LizzyBiz

    WOW! Save everyone five minutes and condense this article down to one sentence please! Found, sniffed, gagged, no orgasm. I guess the smell left you a little long winded.

    • ostracion

      I’ve never understood how and why the woefully incurious find their way into the comment sections on stories like this. When confronted with *gasp* depth, synthesis, and cross-examination of a phenomenon that exceeds base, fast-food style presentation of information, they insist on throwing a tantrum. How DARE the author pursue multiple lines of investigation! If it doesn’t fit on a headline, by god, Lizzy doesn’t want to tax her brain with reading the thing!

      • LizzyBiz

        Broke out the thesaurus on this one didn’t you.

        • ostracion

          Oh, so you don’t like too many TYPES of words either? My apologies. Do you need me to slow it down for you, so you can understand?

          • LizzyBiz

            Not at all. Clearly understanding wasn’t the issue, as I responded to your comment with a brief, to the point, statement related to your tantrum. I’m sure your long winded comments get your ego stroked by other women, just not this one.

          • ostracion

            Hun’, trust me, I have no desire for you to stroke anything of mine. Don’t flatter yourself.

          • LizzyBiz

            Again… you might have an issue with reading AND understanding.

    • Dominick Dickerson

      Maybe Dr. Wilcox is writing for people with an attention span greater than 140 characters.

      Stick to Twitter if you find reading to be too mentally taxing.

      • LizzyBiz

        There was nothing mentally taxing about it, just a very very very long winded article.

        • Laura Harwood

          Not at all long winded, I really enjoyed it. A refreshing change from the sound-bitey crap that is the usual internet fare. Yeah… if your time is so precious, and your attention span so short, you would do better to stick to twitter.

    • OldManPar

      I hope that you know if you can’t be bothered with reading an article that all you had to do was scroll downwards and find the part you were interested in.

      As for your attempt at playing editor and poorer one at being a troll, you’ve failed utterly in both.

    • Jeremiah

      forgot to mention Did not bother bringing any samples back to town and have other women smell it because I wanted to waste the entire trip.

  • Rick Swirl


    As an amateur mycologist and avid reader, I loved this article and felt it was as long as it needed to be for you to take us on this adventure with you. I enjoyed the journey! Ignore all the critics here. Some people will always have negative things to say about anyone who does anything. Keep up the good work.

  • The History Man

    How does the writer KNOW what “fermented decaying semen” smells like, unless she has had some very bad luck with partners over the years? Zombie apocalypse comes to mind!

  • debbie viess

    Hullo Christie!
    Nice consulting with you on this topic, and way to do your very own down and dirty research! What, you didn’t find the odor of
    necrosing semen sexy? What’s WRONG with you? 😉

    BTW, you are quite right in that that most god-awful odor smells much like semen “gone bad,” and it is not just suggestively shaped stinkhorns that produce that order most foul; so does a very curious and beautiful western mountain Hygrophorous species: the pale blue-green Hygrophorus caeruleus.

    When I was first collecting mushrooms over twenty years ago, my husband found this species in Sequoia National Forest, and despite its curious characters (and the fact that it turned out to be a very rare mushroom) I couldn’t bear to bring it home in our cooler! I did consider using it as vengence against our rude campsite neighbors though … by throwing it under their picnic table!

    Cooler heads prevailed, and that fruit body instead got tossed far far away.

    Here is a link to my sketch and story from 1999 on Mushroomobserver.org :


    More photos of this interesting fungal species can also be seen on that fine site. It definitely shared Phallus (no longer Dictyophora) cinnabarinus’ odor profile!

    After doing such a thorough wilting of this male fantasy scenario, do expect the small minded online trolls to come out to play. It ain’t easy being a smart outspoken woman who seeks truth rather than specious, self-serving stories, and then has the balls (i.e. character and courage) to actually publish her well-researched thoughts!

    BTW fellas, for your future dating strategies, the ladies are NOT turned on by internet trolls, either.

    Just sayin.

    Way to end on an optimistic note, Christie, but I would suggest forgetting about that quick fix of mysterious mythic orgasmic stinkhorns and their ilk. There are plenty of reality based turn-ons all around us, some of which may even walk among us.

    Keep on turning your delightfully critical eye upon all things scientific and not so scientific. It makes for a very fine read.

    Debbie Viess
    Bay Area Mycological Society

    • patriciahoward

      ty so much for your input Debbie very interesting article and response!!!

  • nik

    Perhaps it only works for Necrophiliacs!

  • daqu

    A fascinating article, very well written and totally engaging.

    However, I know that I have eaten mushrooms (not sure which ones, but they were definitely among the kinds universally considered edible) that reminded me at least slightly of the smell of fresh semen. As a male, I don’t find that smell particularly appealing, but neither do I find it particularly repulsive.

    I would not be too quick to draw conclusions about what the real story is behind that nano-paper of Holliday and Soule, and especially from Holliday’s behavior. He is human, and humans are known for less than perfect consistency.

    I would also not be too quick to draw conclusions from the author’s experiences described in this article of smelling actual stinkhorns. These come in a variety of different types; Wikipedia mentions that there are 77 species, according to a 2008 estimate. So it is possible the the one you sampled is not the one (if any) referred to by Holliday and Soule.

    • debbie viess

      Well Daqu, I also deeply researched this topic, and I am a mycologist, and I have also smelled a variety of stinkhorns, much to my olfactory distress. I was given a copy of the original paper by Holliday himself. My rebuttal and debunking was published prior to Christie’s work here, and can be read online here:


      Holliday’s paper is bunk, the premise is bunk and the conclusions are bunk. Yup, humans are frail and imperfect, all of us, but that doesn’t excuse this kind of garbage science, masquerading as “real science.”

      Read all of the facts that we have garnered, and then make up your mind on who or what to believe.

      • Tick Tock

        Your n=1 “experiment” “debunks” nothing. However, Your response to critical commentaries debunks a “mycology expert” to be a frumpy, verbose, narcissistic shill, who only her cat could love. Supposedly. :)

  • smut clyde

    When will the thinly-fictionalised movie version of your expedition reach the screen?

  • gendotte

    Tell a chick that it will give her an orgasm and she will try a steam powered vibrator…

  • http://www.yourpredator.com Hunter Coch

    I normally just like long articles, however I read this one to the very end. Very well done. Thank you.

  • http://www.yourpredator.com Hunter Coch

    I normally dislike long articles, however I read this one to the very end. Very well done and highly entertaining. Thank you.

  • smut clyde

    Please forgive the liberties I have taken with your entertaining and educational story (also with Debbie Viess’ determination to keep the record straight).

  • zav

    Damn, there sure are a lot of typos in this article. Where have all the proofreaders gone?

  • haruspex

    Very well researched and well written. I do wonder if other women would react differently, wishing you had expanded your sample size. But otherwise this article left me wanting nothing more, the attention to detail is greatly appreciated.

  • Steve Plambeck

    That wasn’t one word too long, it was just what it had to be to tell the story it told, and the type of story it told. Hard to believe the attention spans of some people. Beautiful writing!

  • Bill End

    this is a ridiculously long article for such an incredibly stupid concept. Why would you think that a scent could cause orgasm in anyone? Why would you actually want that to happen? Do you think that an instant orgasm, as in, feeling nothing, then all of a sudden orgasm, do you think that would feel good? Smart money is on “horrifically painful.” Forgive me if I sound overly cynical, but I firmly stopped believing in magical sex shrooms after my first two girlfriends back in high school. On the other hand, your science and research is, of course, useful to mankind and is a net benefit to humanity. It would just be nice if a clickbait reason wasn’t the catalyst for aforementioned research, but I guess that is the brave new world we live in now.

  • Sic & Doc

    I agree with the critics among the earlier commenters. This was over-long. It was also disjointed, and proved nothing, concluding with supposed knowledge that’s more of a best guess than a scientific fact:

    “After all of the research I had conducted, I knew that there was no reason to believe the Hawaiian orgasm fungus was real.”

    Neither this or the Viess piece cited in the comments tested the hypothesis, which is that a particular stinkhorn causes orgasms in some women.

    Viess’s rhetoric is over-heated. One commenter on the present story is accused of sexist drivel, and another one of idiocy. Her critique of Holliday’s article includes “misogynist” in reference to him. Because:

    “Holliday ends the study with a hopeful note: “an estimated 30-50% of women experience some degree of orgasmic dysfunction during their lives. Could … Dictyophora hold the key to unlocking that mystery?” (Holliday, 2001)”

    Says Viess:
    “Not likely, Mr. Holliday. I could think of several reasons why that statistic might be true, but none of them to do with a lack of stinkhorns in their lives.”

    Holliday didn’t assert that lack of stinkhorns was the cause of orgasmic dysfunction, and it’s hardly women-hating to want to improve women’s sex lives.

    No one other than the women in Holliday’s study can know whether they had orgasms. It’s not clear to me what Viess Wilcox believe about their experiences. To say Holliday’s study should not be believed is to call either him or his putative subjects liars.

    Viess asserts in her article that humans have no volmeronasal organ, contradicting something Holliday said in 2014, namely that about half of all women have one. I don’t know if we do or not, but it seems to be an open question. This year, the Journal of Laryngology & Otology published “The volmeronasal organ – incidence in a Bulgarian population.” The authors spotted the organ in 26% of the 966 videotaped out-patient nasopharyngolaryngoscopies they reviewed. The abstract doesn’t mention sex of patient, but 26% is consistent with 50% of women and a very low incidence in men.

    Is it a good journal? I don’t know. It was founded in 1887 and is published by the Cambridge University press.

    Are Bulgarians women-hating liars? Probably. Decide for yourself. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=10171501&fileId=S0022215116000189

    At this point, no one can say it’s impossible that a stinkhorn induces orgasm in some women, or even the rare man.

    I don’t think Discover should have published this. Snopes is using it to support their “de-bunking” of the orgasm hypothesis, and that’s a shame.

    To my eye, a word-count motive seems to have overtaken the scientific one in C. Wilcox’s story. A political one supplied the impetus for Viess’s publication.

    It would be helpful if someone supplied a copy of the 2001 article. WordPress, which powers mushroomthejournal.com, allows the upload of PDFs as if they were images. They can be presented on a page as if they were images, or linked to like any ordinary file. The Media Library supplies the url.

    This isn’t personal; it’s based on observation. I’m a social psychologist and a mushroom fan. I prefer facts over opinions. I don’t know Holliday or buy his or any other mushroom products. I am impressed by what he has accomplished in the very difficult practice of commercial fungus production, though.

    • debbie viess

      Well Mr. Social Psychologist, perhaps you have lost your observational abilities? Yes, I found Holliday’s study to be sexist drivel. But that isn’t politics, but fact.

      What “politics” was I furthering? Do you realize that sexism is pervasive throughout our culture? Plus, I am a mycologist, and nothing in that story rang true to me. But rather than just speculate, I did the research.

      Even the men queried in this follow-up, both Dr. Silva, world expert on Hawaiin myths and the real Hawaiin mushroom expert Dr. Hemmes, found Holliday’s work to be sexist and even racist drivel. After all, it was those half-naked brown maidens who first “discovered” this wonderful penis-shaped mushroom! Ecstasy ensued. Or did it?

      So, you were at Telluride or also viewed that video online. But just because someone is sitting on a panel at a hippy dippy mushroom fair in the mountains doesn’t make what they say reasonable or true.

      But certainly Holliday knows enough to play to his audience. He has a mushroom to sell you!

      As to the VNO … hello! As I state, it is present in human fetuses, but by birth has degraded into a vestigial organ. In other words, a shadow remains but not its former function as seen in other animals, but not in any of the higher apes, which of course include ourselves. But you can still see traces of it in some people, which is what your Bulgarian study showed, again. This is not news.

      Humans do not have a functional VNO.

      Your cat has a working VNO though, hence its funny Flehman face when scenting.

      Unlike you, both Christie and I have smelled stinkhorns, to our dismay, as have many other women around the world. They are not pleasant, and not something that one would want to repeat. And the whole “point” of Holliday’s research, other than to make a killing on the aphrodisiac market, was to examine the underpinnings of these “ancient legends of Island women having orgasms after smelling penis-shaped stinkhorns” which was clearly shown to be a load of BS!

      But as a “psychologist,” I am sure that you will believe whatever suits your fancy. Isn’t psychology one of those “soft sciences?”

      Scopes got it exactly right.

  • earthtone55

    Had the misfortune of having a patch of stinkhorn mushrooms growing on some wood mulch in the the backyard. Not only do they look like giant penises, but they smell like rotting cadavers with the stink easily detectable for over 50 yards. There’s a reason they’re known as “phallus impudicus” (“shameless penis”). I don’t know how different the common variety is from the Hawaiian one, but the ones I’ve encountered are vomit-inducing, not orgasm-inducing. For those afflicted, a few treatments of ordinary fungicide from the local garden store eventually did kill off the patch.

  • Jeremiah

    Why didn’t you take some of the fungus back with you and have others smell it? to fly all that way and not do this is absurd, You basically went all the way there only to find it did not work for you having been able to confirm or deny that it works on half of the women you just smelled it yourself? What ?!?!?

  • Jodi I’mgonnagetyouSucka Riggi

    Holy moley. I’m a little late to the party it seems. Yes, the article is pretty long, but so are many articles. Books too, I’m guessing the complainers don’t read many.
    Personally I adored this. It was interesting and informative. And funny!
    I recently had a stinkhorn growing in my yard. When I first spotted it I had no clue what it was, my guess was that some demon (or demonic pokemon) was trying to spawn in my lawn. I did get very close to it to try to figure out what it was and I honestly didn’t notice a smell at all. Weird.
    Keep up the good work, I think this story was fabulous!

  • James Melillo

    Well where is smoke there is fire. I live in Panama on the small island of Loma Partida in the Bocas Del Toro Archepeigo.I have 15 acres of. Tropical Rainforrest called Pura Vida organic Plantstion&Beach Villa Rentals it is directly across the Bay from Mt Baru a 12 thousand ft Volcano that shot 50 ton boulders on my property from the last eruption. I almost called the Plantation The Veiled Lady as from time to time we find the gorgeous white ones must be seen as its delicate veil is like Belgian lace. It doest stink it has a Forrest smell. When some of my more fortunate female guests are here and their up for it I give it like a rose and say wiff. Responses are varied but generally shouted ahhhhh, much eye winceing, and chair squirming to the point one guest broke my mahogany chair.They have described the experience as stage 4 dramatic with no fore play which they say is amazing. I tell them please don’t write your experience on Trip Adivsor I d be inundated with Bachorellet parties.

    • debbie viess

      Advert for your vacation property?

  • Anthony King (S.a. King on FB)

    I would imagine; more research to be apropos. There are definitely so many reasons to pursue this and other fungible’s. I have been waiting for this type exact breakthrough for years. I loved your article and hope you will consider going back to that exact location someday and taking along a few gal pals. Perhaps in doing so, samples can be collected and progress made. This data then needs turned into a product which can be used for certain medical conditions brought on by overdose of central nervous system (CNS) which slows autonomic processes. No telling what effect this could possibly have. Shove one of these up their noses and witness a resetting of their olfactory responses to the point of sobriety and albeit future aversions to opioids or even heroine. One never knows…you know? Regardless of my take on it all I did really enjoy your article. Kudos to you kiddo. A promising career definitely awaits you!!!

  • Laura Lynn Corbitt Kessler

    A friend of mine just found this awesome article for me when I told her about this new mushroom that is growing in the front yard of my newly built house under some bushes. It smells horrible and looks almost like this but without the lace coming down. I’m about to kill my husband over it because he keeps kicking it over to kill it (refuses to touch it) but not taking out the bulb underground. Now I have a veritable penis garden growing for all to see and smell. lol. Not sure how to make this go away and definitely not taking the sniff/orgasm test for science. HELP!

    • debbie viess

      You have to dig up the entire bed of organic matter that contains the mushroom mycelia and cart it away! If you miss some, it will come back. Good luck. You are not the only person to have the nightmare of garden stinkhorns!

  • The Dogtor
    • ostracion

      There is only one species of stinkhorn that even comes close to that color description. The rest are very pale. Dr. Wilcox found the correct species.

  • faster

    A very enjoyable read. Thank you for conducting the science. Although, I want to believe!

  • Richard Reed

    Just for the sake of argument an orgasm causing mushroom actually exists. Should I be the lucky discoverer of such a fungus I would like people to be aware of it for the purpose of a potential pharmaceutical company development of a product.

    However, I would NOT want anyone else to know it’s real identity while I was attempting to isolate the active factor or factors. I would publish data of misdirection, including the species, the location, and any information about its actual odor.

    Then one more thing: I would carry a vial of the scent around with me, and any time I found myself in a crowd of beautiful women I would release an ideal dose of the scent. Surely the 6 out of 16 women in that crowd would decide there was amazing chemistry between us and I would find myself getting “lucky” more times than I could count.

  • marty

    Or… Just or.. Maybe its not for YOU to smell. It could be based on women TYPE. Cultures and what not. Ur not native to that land.. So maybe ur not the woman that smells this and loves it or reacts positively to it.

  • Helen A. Myers

    Found disgusting stinky stinkhorn mushrooms in my flowerbed. There is nothing sexual about these horrific penal looking mushrooms with witch eggs attached that have an appearance of mens testicals. Believe I burnt them with LIME. And have ordered a (chemical fungi) to continue killing them off. Whoever felt like this was a joke or a hoax. You are one absurd EVIL INDIVIDUAL..GO F’ Yourself. “IN THAT ORDER!” I believe in God. The devil is a LIE..”Go figure.”

  • JJSymons

    Where have centuries of perfumers been in this? Our domestically grown mushrooms have pleasant uniquely umami aroma that would go well in some perfumes. Even the disgusting stinkhorns might have a place in the right proportions. Remember, it is piles of steaming cow dung and the dead skunk down the road in parts per million that make that deep breathe of country air smell so clean and fresh and invigorating. Where are the perfumers in all this?

    • JJSymons

      Btw: Ms Wilcox, I thought it a great article and I enjoyed every word. Keep writing.


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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.


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@NerdyChristie on Twitter

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