Hero Image

Marin IJ Articles

Sports, fascination, basket stinkhorn and other botanical oddities

  • Nanette Londeree
  • Ever wander through your garden and spy something that looks odd or different than what you expect? Now and then, Mother Nature has a botanical hiccup that produces a garden curiosity. It may be stunningly beautiful, ugly, bizarre or simply funny-looking. Here are some of the more common ones: 


    The rose with the weird-looking mass growing in the center — rather than delicate stamens, there are stunted, thickened leaves, and in some cases, a stem and leaf or new rose bud grow right out of the middle of the flower! It’s phyllody (pronounced fil-o-dee) — unsightly flowers are formed when plant hormones are out of balance because of environmental conditions, water stress, insect damage or infection. Phyllody might impact a single blossom or many, while otherwise, the plant looks perfectly normal and healthy. If you see an errant bloom exhibiting phyllody, don’t panic. It’s likely a response to hot weather, not a serious disease.


    Another garden oddity is fasciation, where leaves, flowers and fruits develop into unusual shapes. Some look like hand-held fans with stems that have fused, others where stems or flower stalks appear squashed and split in two or more sections. Flowers may be elongated, misshapen or in multiples. Fasciation has been observed in many plant species — woody plants, herbaceous annuals, and perennials, fruits and vegetables, and is especially common in cacti and succulents. The cause of fasciation is not understood; it may be genetic in some cases, or infection in others. Fasciation itself is not contagious and does not spread through a planting, though it is a good idea to remove and dispose of distorted tissue and not propagate from the plants.


    Sports, in a garden context, are naturally occurring, spontaneous mutations that are found in a wide range of plants. This botanical anomaly causes a portion of a plant to be different from its parent. The mutation may give rise to a different shape, form or color of the plant’s foliage, flowers, fruit or branch structure.

    Chimeras, similar to sports, have two or more genetically distinct tissues present at the same time. Sports and chimeras may create undesirable changes like “witches’ broom,” where many twigs are densely clustered together forming a mass of shoots that resemble a broom. Or make a positive change — aesthetically, health or productivity-wise. Many commercially successful fruit cultivars originated from sports.

    Virtually all variegated plants started life as ordinary green plants and at some point a genetic hiccup produced a bit of foliage in shades of white, yellow, orange, red or lighter green coloring, producing multicolored foliage. Most of these mutations are random and a result of a change within the cells of the plant, but can sometimes be triggered by cold weather, temperature fluctuations or insect damage.


    Rather the opposite of a sport, reversion is when a plant changes back to its original form. It’s common in variegated trees and shrubs that originated from a sport. The “reverted” new growth is pure green, likely more vigorous than the variegated foliage, and can easily take over the plant. If you want to maintain the variegation in the plant, cut out the reverted green shoots.


    Another strange one that pops up this time of the year is not a plant. What looks like an orange-red whiffle ball sitting on the ground is a mushroom of the fungus Clathrus ruber. Also known as the basket stinkhorn, it is found in woody debris, lawns and cultivated soil. The young form looks like a pale egg. As it bursts from its sheathing, it forms a ball with spongy, lattice-like branches covered with foul-smelling slime (think rotten meat on a hot day) that attracts flies and other insects which, in turn, disperse the mushroom’s spores.

    Next time you’re in the garden, keep on the lookout for Mother Nature’s botanical curiosities; you never know what weird and wonderful things you might find.