Although he’s old-school, and retired old-school at that, Hemmes is pleased that his replacement at UH Hilo is mycologist Brian Perry. “He’s trained in all these molecular techniques. It’s the new age—I’m the old age. He’s working on fungi that live inside of leaves. Every leaf in Hawai‘i has fungi living inside called endophytes. With the UH Hilo College of Pharmacy, he’s extracting compounds from these fungi that might be useful against cancer and malaria. He also works with bioluminescent fungi that glow in the dark. He studied those in Brazil, where they’re so bright you can almost see your way in the dark through a forest at night with a cluster of them.”
Are there glow-in-the-dark mushrooms in Hawai‘i?
“We don’t know. We get a lot of reports from people saying they see glowing at night, and that’s probably the mycelium, which glows also,” Hemmes says. “Someone sent me a photo they took with a cell phone of mycelium glowing at night on Mauna Kea. So that’s exciting.”
For Hawai‘i’s mushroom man, that’s further proof that the secret realm of fungi holds endless marvels. “The most amazing character of the fungi is the intricate forms and bright colors of fruiting bodies: stinkhorns, bird’s nest fungi, jelly fungi, club fungi, coral fungi, shelf fungi, tooth fungi, morels, truffles and of course the myriad mushrooms, all emanating from a tangled mass of plain white threads,” says Hemmes. “I joke that I have a gene for collecting and classifying things. My mother had that gene—she collected bells. My brother, stamps and coins. My sins are seashells, plants and mushrooms. I wanted to write a field guide to mushrooms because people often would contact the university for information. There were all these bird, plant and insect people in Hawai‘i, but nobody for mushrooms. I knew I was sitting on a gold mine.”