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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 29, 2002

Exploring Hawai'i's fungi, tasty to toxic

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Columnist

Human reaction to fungi runs full spectrum, from yuck to yum.

Some are delicate and lacy, some slimy and gross, some pretty, some ugly, some big and some microscopic.

This group of life forms is a mystery to most of us, since it's so different from the plants and animals we are most familiar with.

A new book that introduces Hawai'i residents to that group of fungi known as mushrooms proves a colorful glimpse into their strange world.

It's "Mushrooms of Hawai'i: An Identification Guide," by University of Hawai'i at Hilo professor Don Hemmes and San Francisco State professor Dennis Desjardin.

The main body of most mushroom fungi grows out of sight, the tiny hairs, or hyphae, growing in soil, wood and other organic material. The hyphae intertwine to form a mat known as a mycelium.

The mushrooms are actually its reproductive agents, rising up out of the ground and releasing spores that generally blow on the wind to colonize new areas.

Some mushrooms are edible, but many are extremely poisonous. Some can be hallucinogenic.

Although you may think of mushrooms at first as little white poles with white or brownish caps, they come in stunning colors. There are bright yellows and deep reds, oranges, blacks and blues.

Some erupt in circles that can be several yards in diameter. These "fairy rings" or "menehune rings" of mushrooms form at the outer edges of an underground growth of the mycelium.

Each year, as the mycelium expands, the circle will be a little bigger.

Sometimes the mushrooms don't look like mushrooms we're used to. There are spore-filled balls, which, if kickedwhen ripe, will erupt in a cloud of spores. And there are stinking tentacled things like the red starfish stinkhorn.

Hemmes and Desjardin say there are more than 300 species of mushrooms in the islands, only about one-sixth of which are native. Most of these are endemic, meaning they evolved into their present form in Hawai'i and are not found elsewhere.

Other areas may have more mushrooms, but "what Hawai'i lacks in diversity and abundance, it makes up for in beauty and uniqueness," the authors write.

Their book has excellent color photographs of dozens of mushrooms, with descriptions and other information listed by the vegetation zones where you are likely to find them. There are separate sections on poisonous species, edible ones, some of the fungi that aren't mushrooms, and more.

The book is published by Ten Speed Press and sells for $39.95.

Jan TenBruggencate is The Advertiser's Kauai bureau chief and its science and environment writer. Reach him at (808) 245-3074 or jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.