Marjie Ducey Omaha World-Herald
Five years ago, Jon Hees believed that every wild mushroom meant instant death.
Then he and his girlfriend Erika Catranides went morel hunting on a fishing trip.
“It snowballed into an illness,” Hees said. “When I see a little mushroom, it’s like a mystery that I have to learn.”
The Lincoln man now spends hours on his days off at his forklift job walking through the woods with his head down, looking for mushrooms.
Along the way, he made some important finds. His most recent was the “flame shield” mushroom, known among experts by its Latin name, Pluteus aurantiorugosus. This is only the fourth from Nebraska listed on the iNaturalist app, where most people record their findings.
Josh Herr, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said it was a rare find.
“’I’ve been studying mushrooms for 25 years, and I’ve never encountered this thing,” he said.
Hees also recorded the first bladder stems and Loweomyces fractites mushrooms in Nebraska.
Hees spotted the bright orange “flame shield” mushroom on a log just outside of Lancaster County, in a wildlife management lake.
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It’s unclear how many there may be in the state, as they are hidden away for most of their lives, Herr said. That’s why neither he nor Hees were extremely surprised when another person on the Nebraska Mushrooms Facebook page, Laura Rodgers, posted a photo of the one her boyfriend, Sam Barnes, found last week.
Hees is the moderator of the page, which has nearly 3,000 members.
He found three of them on his site and handled them carefully.
“I didn’t want to put the little guy in my bag and let him get beaten up, so I carried him in my hand,” Hees said.
In the hands of Herr, who is now trying to grow the mushrooms in his lab. His DNA will provide all kinds of information about his family, just like human DNA.
Herr said that because he spends so much time teaching or in the lab rather than outdoors, citizen scientists like Hees are invaluable. But Hees, he said, is a cut above. A true connoisseur.
“He really has a knack for it,” Herr said. “He really learned everything. He is really attached to the science of it.
Hees, 40, said he loved mushrooms so much that information about each one stuck in his head. He thought about going to school to further develop his knowledge, but said he doesn’t do well in such a structured environment – he learns best on his own.
But as someone who has never traveled outside of the United States, he sometimes envies experts like Alan Rockefeller, who travels the world hunting for mushrooms.
While the few he finds are cool, Hees’ favorites are the big ones. Most people don’t realize that varieties like giant balls get so big.
“It amazes them when they see a 20-pound mushroom,” he said. “It did mine, anyway.”
The big ones appear in the fall, when they are ready to breed, and the tasty morels come out in the spring. Hees is so passionate about mycology that he organizes his vacations around their appearances.
His holy grail is a lion’s mane and its dangling thorns, which he has not yet found.
An angler and an outdoor enthusiast his entire life, he enjoys teaching mushrooms to others and delivering specials to Herr to advance the science of the misunderstood mushroom. It is an important part of the ecosystem.
“I just think it’s cool that my name can end up somewhere in a science book, and they can use it to study,” he said. “They don’t have any of those flame arresters. I thought it was pretty exciting.
Photos: Nebraska Wildflowers for the Garden