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Vol. 15, no. 2
April/May 2012


The Magic of Mushrooms 

Story by Janice Crowl

Photos by Jack Wolford  


The sky above MacKenzie Park
on the windward coast of Hawai‘i Island is cloudless; drought has plagued the island for weeks. Usually by October the park is a mushroom wonderland. Instead the duff of the ironwood forest floor is dry as shredded wheat. Nevertheless, the mushroom man is undeterred. Don Hemmes leaps out of the truck and begins searching for fungi.


“Try to imagine thousands of mushrooms right here!” says Hemmes, gesturing animatedly. Retired biology chairman of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and co-author of the bible on Island fungi, Mushrooms of Hawaii, Hemmes is a storyteller and showman setting the stage for a lesson in mycology, the study of mushrooms. “Physically the mushrooms are underground, but there are certain conditions— and we don’t know what they are— when all at once they come out.”


Hemmes says that looking for mushrooms is like going on an Easter egg hunt— you never know what you’ll find. He picks up something that looks like a shriveled knot of rawhide. “Gymnopus menehune,” he says. “We named them ‘menehune’ because they make fairy rings.” Menehune are the legendary little people of Hawai‘i, and fairy rings are what mycologists call the circular growth pattern some mushrooms make. According to European folklore, a human who unwittingly steps inside a fairy ring becomes trapped in a never-ending pixie party.


Hemmes often leads hunts at Mac- Kenzie, where most of the vegetation and fungi aren’t native to Hawai‘i. (He won’t bring groups to native forests because such areas are sensitive to human activity.) But Hemmes is not picky; native or alien, he loves fungus. For the past five years he’s been going to MacKenzie Park to collect data on mushrooms, frequently with his wife, Helen. (One of Hemmes’ colleagues named a slime mold, Acrasis helenhemmes, in her honor. Mycologists also named a native tree fungus, Inonotus hemmesi, and the genus Hemmesomyces in honor of the professor’s work on Hawaiian fungi.)


Uphill Hemmes finds dehydrated “earthstars,” mushrooms that have adapted to drier areas. They look like miniature wood roses with “arms” extending outward. “Geastrum reticulatum,” he says, shaking one. Its spores rise up, emitting a strange, earthy scent. Hemmes pulls back the duff under the earthstars and points to a white, cottony mass: the mycelium. “The mycelium of a fungus is like an apple tree. The mushrooms are the fruiting bodies; they’re the apples,” he says.


During the rainy season, MacKenzie Park is bursting with hundreds of unabashedly phallic “stinkhorns.” They’ve earned their moniker; stinkhorns can be pungent or downright fetid. “Some have a chemical compound called cadaverine that makes them smell like rotting flesh,” says Hemmes. “Others smell like pig manure and worse. Fungi are pretending to be a dead animal or feces. A fruiting body will be covered in flies eating it, and that’s how it spreads.”