Thursday, February 21, 2008

Fungi with a Fun Guy

“Can you eat it?”

“Will it kill my plants?”

Beyond these two initial questions, most gardeners aren’t particularly drawn into the mysteries of the fungi kingdom. However, when Dr. Don Hemmes, foremost authority on fungi of Hawai'i, amiably spreads his abundant enthusiasm around like mycelium proliferating the soil of a thriving forest, one can’t help but want to learn more about this amazing group of living organisms.

Hemmes teaches biology at University of Hawai'i at Hilo and is co-author of Mushrooms of Hawaii, a layman-friendly reference book based on years of scientific research. On this uncommonly hot, sunny February day, he led the Hawai'i Island Master Gardeners on a magical mystery tour of mushroom heaven, otherwise known as MacKenzie State Park, not far from the active lava flows of Kalapana. (Hey man, no need to call anyone, we weren’t looking for cow-patty hallucinogenic mushrooms here, ‘kay?)

Normally there are copious mushrooms at MacKenzie due the moist windward coastal environment and the ubiquitous ironwood trees (Causurina) that make hospitable substrates of loose, thick duff for mushrooms to grow in. Even though the weather was a welcome change for most people who had to deal with the recent Hilo flooding, the dry weather did make pickin’s slim for mushroom hunting on this particular outing. We found some interesting dried-up specimens, of course, but we also came across some living wood fungi as well as a few mushrooms that sprouted earlier in the day.

Here are some of the fruiting bodies we saw…

Pycnoporus sanguineus, used by weavers to make a yellow dye...

Inky Caps (Coprinus lagopus) on a fallen coconut log….

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)

Earthstar, dried (Geastrum sp.)

Dried-up Green-spored Parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites). EXTREMELY toxic…

Only 5 percent of Hawaii’s mushrooms are edible and tasty. Another 5 percent are so toxic that if you eat them “you’ll be dead, or wish you were” because you’ll be vomiting violently, nonstop, says Hemmes. The rest of the mushrooms just taste terrible. Should you taste them anyway? Nope, not unless you are an expert who can ID to species, or you are with one, or you are looking forward to a liver transplant and a lifetime of medication, or you’ve updated your will.

Our native forests, mostly above 4,000 feet elevation, have only native mushrooms – about 300 identified by Hemmes, all given Hawaiian names with the help of UHH Hawaiian Studies department chair Kalena Silva. Ninety percent of Hawaii’s native fungi are endemic.

Although many mushrooms have distinctive characteristics that make them easy to identify, many are difficult to distinguish and a single mistake could be deadly. In fact, the fatally toxic Amanita marmorata, which often pops up in public parks, schoolyards, and suburban lawns near eucalyptus, paperbark and ironwood trees, is a dead ringer for the white button mushrooms sold in grocery stores and as pizza toppings. If a mushroom mix-up lands you in the hospital in Hawai'i, you’ll be getting a visit from Dr. Hemmes since he's on every hospital's list for consultation – not the way you would want to make his delightful acquaintance, but certainly you would be extremely fortunate to have his invaluable expertise and upbeat demeanor to aid your recovery.

Fungi play vital roles in the garden. Some are decomposers that break down organic matter and free up nitrogen in the nutrient cycle, others can be mycorrhizal types that aid plants in their uptake of water and nutrients. While some fungi are parasitic and kill plants, or can just be a nuisance and cause a stink in your yard, many might also have unique properties that are proving to be useful in medicine, agriculture, environmental remediation, and other human interactions.

Of the world’s 2 million species of fungi, Dr. Don Hemmes has identified 75,000. He’s always on the lookout for new species, so if you find something interesting in your garden or on a hike, send him a digital photo via email at

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Lichens, Mosses, and Fungi, Oh My!

No room for a big garden with big plants? Perhaps you should get small. In the world of tiny plants, it’s a jungle out there.

“Now I know who the real plant geeks are,” quipped botanist and self-confessed lichen lover, Tim Tunison. We diehards had flocked to the Niaulani campus of the Volcano Art Center for an all-day nerd-fest, er, workshop on lichens, mosses, and fungi. Eager to explore that little-known frontier usually ignored by what might be considered the saner population, we had all prepared ourselves with mud gear and warm sweaters to stare and squint at tree trunks and lava rocks on the slopes of Mauna Loa. And indeed we got to know a little, and a lot more about little, thanks to the generous wit and wisdom of Tim Tunison.

Tim started out by giving us a rundown of terminology (Do you know your liverworts from your hornworts and mosses? Is that lichen crustose, fruticose, foliose or squamulose?) He enlightened us with a plethora of fascinating facts, such as most mosses and lichens in Hawai'i are indigenous natives found in a wide range of locations, and there are comparatively few fungi here.

Then we got down to the myths, legends, FAQs and other minutiae, such as:

"Are fungi plants or animals?"
Neither. Fungi rule! When classifying living organisms, they are placed in the Kingdom Fungi.

"Is a lichen a plant or animal?"
It’s both, but mostly it’s fungi living with algae. The algae usually can live without the fungi, but the fungi can’t live without the algae. (Had any roommates like this?)

"Help! I see lichens all over my tree, and especially on the branches that are dying. Lichens are killing my poor trees!"
Stop! Put away that fungicide. When was the last time you saw a healthy, thriving rainforest without any lichens and mosses? Your tree was probably already not doing well, maybe due to old age, poor nutrition, or a pathogen. Most likely the branches lost its leaves and thus allowed the lichens to grow. You can prune off the dead branches and/or pull off the lichens by hand to increase exposure to light and see if that alone restores the vigor of your tree. Some gardeners find that fertilizing the tree also helps.

After this introduction, we all sat in a big circle while Tim passed out samples of the Lilliputian delights he had gathered for our perusal. Armed with magnifying lenses, we could see in clear detail the amazing forms and textures we’ve been missing out on. We oohed and ahhed over the delicate beauty of these miniature gardens, their parts ruffled, fluffy, powdery, rubbery, and woody, in colors ranging from pale green to emerald, bright gold and chocolate brown.

Next we set off into the Volcano forests to search for these wonders in their natural environments, the places Tim called the “leftover habitats.” Our explorations came across many specimens of lichens, mosses, liverworts, hornworts, and filmy ferns, and gave us a glimpse of some other native species in the wild. Here's a peek at what we saw.

a liverwort...

a very LARGE filmy fern...

“mintless” mint…

loulu palm (Pritchardia becchariana)…

native fern, relative of bird's nest (Asplenium sp.)…

olomea (Perrottetia sandwicensis)

This protected forest is kept clear of invasive species such as ginger, banana poka and Himalayan raspberry, and feral pigs. It was an incredibly enriching feeling to see so many healthy native plants repopulating the land here. Thanks to excellent environmental education programs promoting stewardship such as the ones offered by the Volcano Art Center, the general public has the opportunity to learn more and share their interests regarding the unique native plant species of Hawai'i, from the giant koa tree to the microscopic red algae that covers its bark with a rusty coat. Volcano Art Center classes and workshops are held throughout the year for residents and visitors to the island of Hawai'i.

Gardening tip: If you want to grow algae and mosses on terra cotta or a concrete surface, such as a planter or garden art, it’s easier if you live in a wet, humid environment but you can try to stimulate the process. Crumble a bit of moss into some buttermilk or yogurt, and then brush the mixture on the surface you want the moss to grow on. Keep the object in a moist, shady spot for several weeks or months, and voila! – you’ve created a low-maintenance, natural touch to your landscaping.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Stop and Smell the Pandan Wangi

The next time you’re feeling frazzled driving through the streets of Honolulu, take a break and head on up to the Lyon Arboretum, nestled deep in the heart of Manoa Valley. It’s an easy drive and within minutes away of the all hustle and bustle you can stroll through a misty tropical rainforest, breathe in fresh O2, hear the rejuvenating sounds of a bubbling stream and songbirds performing their lusty arias. Tension just melts away as you gaze upon the renovated ancient lo’i or a quiet pond, smell the sweet perfume of plants in love. Ahh.

Speaking of love, I fell head over heels for this patch of pandan wangi, Pandanus amaryllifolius, planted beneath native Hawaiian loulu palms (Pritchardia sp.)

The incense-like scent was so powerful the pandan signaled its presence long before it came into view. I couldn't help but take several deep, relaxing breaths here. Pandan leaves add rich flavor to many Thai dishes; they're also used to make scented water for religious ceremonies.

Weaving between the pandan were betel vines (Piper betle); their dark green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves were my favorite Valentines of the week.

If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.
--Henry David Thoreau

So. Here we are. Just sit, and breathe.