The Namesmith

Dennis Desjardin posing with a large mushroom

A penchant for evocative fungi names has brought big returns for Dennis Desjardin

Naming a first child is easy for some. Maybe it’s the same for the second and third. But at a certain point, coming up with original names is going to take a little creative thinking.

Now imagine naming 300.

That’s something like the experience of San Francisco State University Professor of Biology Dennis Desjardin, who in his career has helped describe 293 species of fungi. Along with the effort of finding them and the painstaking documentation it takes to prove that each species is new to science, that meant coming up with names for every single one. So it was only a matter of time before he started having fun with it.

As the scientist describing a species for the first time, “you have the obligation to name them something,” Desjardin explained. And as long as you follow the rules, “you can name them pretty much anything you want to.”

He started small, naming fungi after their physical traits or the plants they grew on (like Micromphale sequoiae, the latter word an homage to California redwoods). Each was styled in Latin and Greek to follow the byzantine rules laid out by the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi and Plants — or in the world of fungal taxonomists, simply “The Code.”

But after a series of trips to Hawaii in the early 1990s to track down the little-documented fungi of the islands, Desjardin decided to work with local elders to come up with evocative Hawaiian-language names to reflect the species’ home. A bright yellow shroom became Hygrocybe lamalama — lamalama meaning “to glow as if touched by the sun” — and another was dubbed Hygrocybe pakelo, referring to a slippery fish. “This mushroom has just got snot all over it,” explained Desjardin. “You try to pick it up, and it just slips out of your hands.”

Later collecting trips around the globe led to names in Indonesian and Malagasy, and others that strayed further from the norm. After receiving widespread media attention for a name that’s too R-rated to mention here, Desjardin’s next moment in the spotlight came from an orange, porous mushroom in Borneo. In a spark of inspiration, he and University of California, Berkeley Professor Tom Bruns named it Spongiforma squarepantsii after the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. The finishing touch of the comparison? The mushroom’s fruity scent.

“SpongeBob is kind of yellow and orange, and so is the fungus. And he lives in a pineapple under the sea so he’s got to smell fruity,” Desjardin explained. “It all fits!”

That one landed him on the BBC, in National Geographic and more, as well as a spot on the International Institute for Species Exploration’s Top 10 New Species of 2012. His creative names for luminescent mushrooms also got him featured in second-grade classroom lessons around the world. For Desjardin, that represented an invaluable platform to educate.

“It gave me the opportunity on the world stage to talk more about the role of fungi in ecosystems, the importance of conservation and the importance of biodiversity,” he explained. “That wouldn’t happen unless there was some way to put my foot in the door.”

Desjardin even managed to slip some wordplay into the scientific record. Say the second part of Agaricus entibigae out loud, and you’ll spell out the site in Hawaii where he first spotted the shroom: N-T-B-G, the National Tropical Botanical Garden.

But perhaps his crowning achievement in naming was a jewel-red mushroom spotted by his wife Wipapat Kladwang on a walk in Hawaii. He gave it the name Pseudobaeospora wipapatiae after her Thai name, Wipapat, and wrote that “the beauty of this new species is surpassed only by that of its discoverer” in the scientific paper announcing its discovery.

“If you want to get brownie points forever, you name something after your wife,” he said. “It’s in the annals of science forever. Can’t take that away.”