Paul Stamets, famed mushroom guru and author of Mycelium Running, calls fungi the Earth’s “natural Internet”; a subterranean network of fungi is always spreading, helping plants grow, breaking down toxins and releasing nutrients back into the environment. The largest living organism in the world is a humongous fungus lurking under an Oregon forest. It stretches over a nearly four-mile radius and is about 2,400 years old. In the amazingly diverse kingdom of fungi, weirdness and wonder reign supreme. There’s a fungus that grows in the brains of ants, turning them into “zombies” that do their bidding, which is making them bite leaves that are in the perfect location for the fungus’ reproduction. In Hawai‘i’s native koa forests, fungi play important roles in creating soil over bare lava. A fungus called brown rot naturally infects almost all koa wood, causing it to decay. When the tree dies, the fungus recycles the cellulose into the soil, and what remains is a hard “nurse log” of lignin that can last a hundred years and sustain native forest plants with its perfect nutrition, water-holding capacity and pH balance.
Fungi are also nature’s apothecaries. They produce powerful chemicals that can kill and heal; they’re treasured for their pharmaceutical properties, especially antibiotic and psychotropic. Throughout the ages, fungi have been linked to magic in folklore and to the spirit world of medicine men. Some scholars attribute the origin of Santa Claus and his “flying” reindeer to the hallucinogenic red-capped, white-spotted fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). Fly agaric was used by shamans of ancient Siberia and by various cultures for religious and recreational purposes, and reindeer of northern Europe reportedly feast on the mushroom and become intoxicated.
Despite the horror stories of people consuming the wrong mushroom, only 5 percent of all the mushrooms known are poisonous, and only 5 percent are palatable. (Ninety percent are edible but just don’t taste good.) And despite the fact that identifying a mushroom can be a matter of life and death, Hemmes uses a decidedly low-tech method: He tastes it. It’s a common way mycologists identify fungi; some taste like radishes, flowers or pepper. “You can pretty much taste any mushroom,” Hemmes says. “Just don’t swallow it.” For those who want just a little more certainty, spore prints and even DNA sampling can distinguish the harmless from the lethal. Although no one in Hawai‘i has died from eating a poisonous mushroom (as far as anyone knows), experts like Hemmes are continually discovering new alien species.
So far Hawai‘i has only one lethal mushroom, Amanita marmorata, named for the grey marbling on its white cap. It’s an Australian import that grows abundantly around trees from Down Under such as eucalyptus and paperbark. “Dogs have eaten it and died. It destroys the liver,” says Hemmes. Others, like the common green-spored parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites), won’t kill you, but they’ll make you pretty sick. This large mushroom often appears in fairy rings under banyan trees and in lawns and compost; it causes serious gastrointestinal illness. Hemmes knows how bad eating a poisonous mushroom can be—he’s the state’s expert the Poison Control Center in Colorado calls when there’s a mushroom poisoning case at a hospital in Hawai‘i, which happens at least once a year, in some years three or four times. As far as hallucinogenic mushrooms are concerned, yes, Hawai‘i does have several alien species of them. Some of the poisonings Hemmes responds to are the result of people hunting for hallucinogenic mushrooms and eating the wrong ones—or too many of the right ones.