Hawai‘i’s mushroom man didn’t start as a mycologist; he was trained as a cell biologist. Twenty-five years ago former Hawai‘i Community College professor Lani Stemmerman took him to a kipuka, an area of preserved Hawaiian forest, along Saddle Road to study native plants, and as they sat with students they spied tiny native mushrooms, Galerina atkinsoniana, in the moss.
“She said, ‘You should study these!’ That’s the first recollection I have of noticing mushrooms in Hawai‘i,” says Hemmes, probably because for a variety of reasons, Hawai‘i hasn’t traditionally been a mushroom mecca. There isn’t even a word for “mushroom” in the Hawaiian language. “Whoever did the first translating, perhaps the missionaries, might have missed the Hawaiian names,” Hemmes speculates. “Some modern ones have been added, like pepeaio, which is the ear-like edible mushroom of the Auricularia genus, also known as Chinese wood-ear. There’s kukaelio, which refers to those growing in dung. The Hawaiians might have had names for the mushrooms found in the native rainforest because they are brilliantly colored—reds, oranges, pinks — and the Hawaiians certainly would have seen them. The most common one is huge: University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Hawaiian language professor Kalena Silva named it laulaha (Rhodocollybia laulaha), which means ‘common’ and ‘widespread.’”
Another reason there are no surviving Hawaiian words relating to mushrooms, Hemmes theorizes, could be that there are no native edible, poisonous or psychoactive mushrooms. That being the case, “They probably weren’t remarkable to the Hawaiians, whereas in Mexico there are hallucinogenic mushrooms used to see the future and talk to ancestors, so it was a big part of their religion,” Hemmes says. “Some people have written papers saying that petroglyphs — the figures with hemispherical shapes for heads — suggest that the Hawaiians had a mushroom cult. But I think that probably represents a helmet.” Mildly hallucinogenic mushrooms do grow locally in cow dung today, but there were no cows in Hawai‘i until 1793, when Capt. George Vancouver brought them as a gift to Kamehameha I.
Hemmes had been studying Hawaiian mushrooms for only a year when in 1991 he met the man who would become his co-author, Dennis Desjardin, a biology professor at San Francisco State University. Hemmes was displaying his photos of Hawaiian mushrooms at a meeting of the Mycological Society of America. “Dennis’ eyes got as big as saucers — no one had heard of Hawaiian mushrooms,” laughs Hemmes. “We got a National Science Foundation grant to study mushrooms anywhere in the world, and that’s how we got started.”
How does one embark on a quest for mushrooms? Lao Tzu said the journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet. “Perambulation, I think it’s called,” says Hemmes. “Just walk around. Look down,” he laughs. He and Desjardin got permits to hike in natural area reserves on each island. They trekked from ocean to mountaintops, from leeward to windward to find mushrooms in lawns, pastures, guava thickets, coconut groves, conifer forests, sphagnum bogs and more. The grant funded their search for seven years, but they continued long after, scouring the forests and occasionally finding undescribed species; last year they named two new earthstars in Pacific Science. “You can go into native mountain rainforests and be walking for two hours and not see a single mushroom. But then all of a sudden the conditions are right, and they appear.”
Desjardin is the curator of the Thiers Herbarium, one of the largest mushroom herbaria west of the Mississippi, and all of the mushrooms he and Hemmes collected are housed there. They’ve identified more than four hundred species of mushrooms in Hawai‘i, sixty that are endemic, found nowhere else in the world. They’ve discovered more than two hundred species of fungi that were previously undescribed. Hemmes and Desjardin decided to give all the endemic mushrooms Hawaiian common names and consulted with Kalena Silva.
What Hawai‘i’s native mushrooms lack in number they make up for with uniqueness and beauty. “We have noelokelani (Hygrocybe noelokelani), which is deep pink; noe means ‘growing in a wet place,’ and lokelani is the pink rose of Maui. There’s the orange-colored pakelo (Hygrocybe pakelo), which means ‘slippery like a fish’—you can’t even hold it; it’ll slip right out of your hand. There’s lamalama (Hygrocybe lamalama), which means ‘glowing like the sun,’ because it’s a beautiful, orange-yellow one found in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and at Kamakou Preserve on Moloka‘i. If the sun’s out, they just glow in the moss,” says Hemmes. Recently he discovered an earthstar that had never been described surrounding koa trees on Kaua‘i. It resembled a lychee fruit, so he named it Geastrum litchiforme.