By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener The Wildlife Gardener and the Junior Wildlife Gardeners had a wonderful half-term day out at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex. It is Kew Garden’s country residence and home to the Millennium Seed Bank, where seeds are collected from around the world, sorted and kept in cold storage for as long as. You can visit the Seed Bank and its interactive exhibition with oddities that captivated the JWGs:
More fascinating perhaps is watching the botanical boffins going about their business in the seed labs on each side of the exhibition hall. Either they are shielded behind one-way glass or they have become adept at ignoring The Great British Public + offspring peering through the windows at them. Wakehurst is also home to some extraordinary, spooky trees growing on outcrops of the local Ardingly sandstone:
Just the thing for an atmospheric Halloween afternoon. However, the afternoon quickly turned from a ghosts ‘n’ ghoulies giggle to a hide-behind-the-sofa-oh-no-we-don’t-have-a-sofa Dr Who moment. By the spooky trees, I looked down and noticed what seemed to be a cracked egg lying on the ground in the middle of the path:
Urgh! What is that? It did not seem to be connected to the ground. It had a leathery skin like a reptile egg, a jelly-like white, with something hard and pale beneath that. I picked it up, on the understanding that this could be the sci-fi moment when it exudes green slime all over me and I’m beamed up kicking and screaming to the mother spaceship. I wasn’t at all sure what to do with my alien egg, apart from put it in a Tupperware lunchbox. Then a light bulb appeared above my head: we were only a few yards away from one of the world’s greatest botanical resources. I could do a lot worse than pop into the Millennium Seed Bank to see if anyone knew what it was. We waved lunatically at the boffins through the windows and they stalwartly ignored us (definitely one-way glass). I eventually managed to grab seed conservation botanist Sarah Moss who was evaporating through one of the hi-tech doors into the laboratories behind. Initially, she thought it was a job for one of the gardeners, but when I unpacked it from the crinkled tin foil and made the poor girl look at the slimy oddity, she offered to take it and ask one of their ecologists. I said I hadn’t had the courage to delve behind the jelly to see what was underneath. “No”, said Sarah, “I’m not surprised.” Five minutes later, Sarah emerged with my alien egg, sliced in half by a brave ecologist:
“We’re not sure what it is, so you have half and we’ll have half. We think it’s fungal so it may go off to Mycology at Kew Gardens. We’ll email you and let you know what it is”. How exciting! Outside the Seed Bank, I was photographing my half when Sarah came up to us again: “It’s Friday afternoon and everyone’s a bit distracted by your find. We think we know what it is. It’s probably a stinkhorn fungus“.
Ah yes. Phallus impudicus. Why hadn’t I thought of that? The reptilian ‘scrotum’, the hard, pale ‘glans’ and the spore-rich jelly that will coat the head of the mature stinkhorn with foul-smelling fly attractant (the flies feast on the jelly and disperse the spores on their feet). And then I felt suddenly, terribly guilty. I have always longed to see and photograph a mature stinkhorn. Now my ‘alien egg’ would never develop into a naughty-shaped toadstool. I had had two choices: to wander away and be forever wondering just what that ‘egg’ was, or to sacrifice it in the name of scientific curiosity. As I console myself with the thought that perhaps it would have been trodden all over on the footpath anyway, I post my findings to our esteemed Naturenet readers in the hope that if you, like me, find an ‘alien egg’, you’ll know what it is.