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Jan. 2002, Vol. 27 No. 1
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A Hilo professor’s passion for fungi could spark a new agriculture industry on the Big Island

The Mushroom Man

by Susan Collins
Don Hemmes holding palm-sized caps of two mushrooms

Don Hemmes distinctly remembers when the late Lani Stemmerman took him to a kipuka, or opening in the forest, along the Saddle Road on the Big Island more than a dozen years ago. The noted Hawaiian naturalist directed Hemmes’s attention to small mushrooms, telling him, “you should study these.” Hemmes took the advice, and both his reputation as an authority on Hawai'i fungi and his dream for a new island agricultural industry have, well, mushroomed.

Hemmes grew up surrounded by cornfields in Iowa. A desire to see the ocean and a college professor’s suggestion that he seek a fellowship at UH Manoa drew him to the Hawai'i in 1965. He earned a master’s degree in microbiology in 1967 followed by a PhD in 1970 and has taught at UH Hilo since 1973.

“As a biologist, I would see mushrooms in the wild, but when I tried to identify them I found out that there were no Hawaiian mushrooms in mainland handbooks. As an educator, I thought I’d like to make a field guide for the general public. So I took all the photos I could and went to a mushroom conference in San Antonio to find someone to help in the identifications.”

Also attending the conference was Dennis Desjardin, professor of biology and director of Thiers Herbarium at San Francisco State, the largest herbarium of mushrooms west of Mississippi. Their collaboration began on the spot. “We started on the great study of mushrooms in Hawai'i. We traveled from the mountaintops to the seashore on every island. It was a lot of serendipity, because many mushrooms are out for just a few days, and we had to catch them just when they were out,” Hemmes recalls.

During seven years of National Science Foundation–funded identification adventures, Hemmes and Desjardin discovered that 90 percent of the mushrooms in the native forests are endemic, but all the species in the lowlands have been introduced. For example, guava trees, which come from South America, harbor certain introduced fungi. Other trees provide a haven for mushrooms from the South Pacific and Australia. The spores, says Hemmes, most likely hitched a ride to Hawai'i in the soil when the trees were imported. Hallucinogenic or “magic mushrooms” probably arrived with cattle brought by Captain Vancouver during the 1800s.

Hemmes and Desjardin decided to give the native species they identified Hawaiian names. They called upon Kalena Silva, UH Hilo professor of Hawaiian studies and director of Ka Haka 'Ula O Ke'elikolani, the College of Hawaiian Language for help.

“We asked Kalena to come up with proper names for the native mushrooms,” Hemmes says. “We showed him pictures and told him about the important features, such as color or texture. Noelokelani combines noe, meaning mist or fog, and lokelani, a small pink rose, to refer to this beautiful pink mushroom that grows in the rainforest. Another is pakelo, slippery like a fish, because you can’t hold onto it. Lamalama is for one that glows like the sun. Some were named after Pele. We’ve given Hawaiian names to honor the Hawaiians.”

The painstaking identification work of these mushroom men is published in A Field Guide to Mushrooms in Hawai'i (Ten Speed Press). Biologists, fungal experts, students and mushroom enthusiasts alike can use it to identify the many unique fungal species of Hawai'i.

Two mushrooms with shallow rounded caps on the forest floor

Hygrocybe pakelo gets its name because it is slippery like a fish. Copyrighted photo from A Field Guide to Mushrooms in Hawai'i, used with permission.

Hemmes says the mushrooms of Hawai'i vary greatly. Some can kill or make people violently ill if ingested. Hemmes is on call statewide to identify mushrooms in suspected poisonings. He offers frequent public education talks. “Remember, we have deadly poisonous mushrooms in Hawai'i, so consult an expert before experimenting,” he emphasizes. “If someone gets sick after eating mushrooms, bring specimens along to the emergency room for identification.”

But there are good, edible mushrooms here, too. Some, Hemmes says, are excellent prospects for commercial cultivation in the diversified agriculture of a post-sugar era. Mushrooms hold potential in both gourmet food and health product industries.

“There is considerable interest in growing gourmet mushrooms, like shiitake. Hawai'i chefs want the absolute freshest, and what comes from the mainland is two or three days old,” he explains. Also, extracts from fungi for food and health product additives are potential products for the mycopharmaceuticals market. “That has great potential because we have unique mushrooms here that may have antibiotic or anti-cancer properties.”

The first step is research into local substrate materials suitable for growing mushrooms commercially. The alder and oak materials favored on the mainland aren’t available in Hawai'i. Hemmes is trying to secure grant money to identify readily available alternatives. “You need two buildings to begin production,” he continues. “You need a microbiology lab to culture fungi (with a large autoclave to sterilize the media so that you are growing only the specific fungus you want) and a cropping building with 80 to 90 percent humidity where you grow and harvest the crop.” Educational modules are also critical—both instructional programs to train fungi farmers and experimental programs so students and researchers can study growing techniques, conduct market surveys and provide other support for commercial production.

If passion breeds success, the Big Island will soon be sprouting with commercial mushrooms. “I could work the rest of my life studying Hawaiian mushrooms,” Hemmes happily says.

Susan Collins (’99 Hilo) is a freelance writer

Shiitake Mushroom Salad

Shiitake mushroom caps on spinach leaves

Hawai'i restaurants provide a potential market for locally grown gourmet mushrooms. Chefs want fresh ingredients for dishes like this salad, created by UH Associate Professor Kusuma Cooray, of Kapi'olani CC’s Culinary Institute of the Pacific.

Serves 4

Remove the mushroom stems. Season mushrooms with garlic, salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in sauté pan and cook the mushrooms on high heat for 2–3 minutes. Remove mushrooms and cook onion rings for 1 minute. Place spinach on salad plates; arrange mushrooms and onion rings on spinach. Drizzle with dressing.

For dressing, whisk

Hilo Botanical Gardens are living laboratories

Carved out of a once overgrown gulch along UH Hilo residence halls, inviting paths meander through conifer trees in a garden established for students who had never seen a live pine. Planted nearby are close to a hundred species of cycads from as far away as Africa, China, North and Central America and Australia. Some are sharp and spiky, others, soft and feathery. “They look like palms, with names like sago or king palm, but they are in no way related to palms,” instructs Don Hemmes. The real palms can be found in another section of the garden, which includes a nearly complete collection of Hawaiian loulu palms.

UH Hilo Botanical Gardens represent the biology professor’s three decades of collecting and deep love of teaching. “To an educator, gardens are living laboratories, and these are my botany laboratories. More than 10,000 students have toured the gardens and learned about the interesting plants found right on our campus,” he says. A $10,000 grant from the James and Abigail Campbell Foundation is being used to create gardens throughout campus featuring Hawai'i’s native and ethnobotanical plants. Hemmes’s goal is simple: “I want our UH Hilo Botanical Gardens to be the most spectacular scientific gardens on the island.”