Issue 15.2: 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.”


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.


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.


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.”