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:It 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.”
“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.