What are waxcaps?
Waxcaps are the most visible and distinctive members of the grassland fungi community.
Often brightly colored and with a waxy or slimy texture, they have a strong association with old, undisturbed and nutrient poor grasslands. Examples include old pastures and meadows, churchyards and lawns.
The most diverse populations are found in areas that are grazed or mown regularly and that have had no recent fertilizer application.
Other notable members of the grassland fungi community include the other-worldly coral fungi and earthtongues.
Image below: Hygrocybe intermedia (Fibrous Waxcap)
Why are they so important?
The wet western edge of Europe, especially Scotland and Wales, are some of the most important habitats for grassland fungi in the world. The fungal mats are highly susceptible to disturbance, for example by ploughing or application of artificial fertilizer.
The intensification of agriculture has led to the loss of suitable habitats and many waxcap species and allies are rare or in decline. Change of management (lack of grazing, encroachment of scrub, tree planting, building works) can also lead to the loss of waxcap and allied species.
Would we really notice if a few species of eccentrically colored mushrooms were lost to the world?
I don’t know, though I think we’d be much poorer for the loss of diversity and beauty if nothing else.
I have been recording waxcap fungi and allies for over ten years and each autumn it is pleasure anew to poke about in the grass and see what treasures I might find. They are as beautiful as the wildflowers we value in the same grasslands in the summer.
Loss of these old and complex interactions is also indictive of our wider environmental problems. We are facing a worldwide catastrophic loss of biodiversity, the environment is becoming less complex, less rich, less diverse and less resilient. I believe we are the poorer for it.
Hygrocybe citrinovirens (Citrine Waxcap)
Porpolomopsis calyptriformis (Pink or Ballerina Waxcap)
Where can I find them?
Waxcaps and allied grassland fungi favor low nutrient, undisturbed grassland, so identify suitable habits in your local area and go and have a look.
Old meadows and pastures are classic habitats.
Waxcaps are strongly associated with short grass though this may be in part because it is easier to see and record the fruiting bodies in these areas. We found several species that would otherwise have remained hidden whilst late autumn scything an area of permanent pasture.
Churchyards and burial grounds can be rich hunting ground.
These areas are often remnants of the landscape before the intensification of agriculture. Years of regular mowing and removal of grass clippings creates a low nutrient environment that especially favours waxcaps and allies. My local churchyard is home to a huge diversity of waxcaps and allies, including the Violet Coral Fungus, a Red Data List species.
Any area of grassland that is regularly mown and low in fertility may harbor a few waxcaps.
Do not restrict your searches to areas that are rich in wildflowers in the summer, as waxcap sites are not necessarily rich in flora. I have recorded species such as Blackening Waxcap and White Spindles in front lawns in the middle of towns! Last week I recorded a good diversity of waxcaps in the lawns of a manor house in North Wales and in the common grasslands around Aberaeron.
Gliophorus irrigatus (Slimy Waxcap)
Clavaria fragilis (White Spindles or Fairy Fingers)
How long will it take for waxcaps to establish in a new meadow?
Many people are creating new wildflower meadows, which led me to wonder how long it might take grassland fungi to establish in these areas. I haven’t found any definitive answers as yet. It is likely to be dependent on the existing levels of fungi in the soil and the likelihood of the arrival of spores from neighboring sites.
Some waxcaps, such as Hygrocybe virginiea (Snowy Waxcap) and Hygrocybe conica (Blackening Waxcap), seem less susceptible to disturbance and reappear earlier when land management is changed.
Conversely some species, such as Hygrocybe coccinea (Scarlet Waxcap) and Hygrocybe punicea (Crimson Waxcap), are generally considered to be indictive of old waxcap grassland. These older sites show the greatest diversity and will reveal a wide variety of species when surveyed over time.
Hygrocybe punicea (Crimson Waxcap)
Hygrocybe coccinea ( Scarlet Waxcap)
Are they edible?
This is often one of the first questions I get asked when showing someone their first waxcaps. I find it a bit of an annoying question to be honest. The fungi are interesting just as they are, if they are edible to humans or not seems to me to be rather besides the point!
But to answer it anyway…most waxcaps are not poisonous but are not considered to be particularly good eating. The one exception is Cuphophyllus pratensis (Meadow Waxcap), pictured above. In a good season it grows to a good enough size and in prolific enough numbers on our meadows that we will pick and eat some.
More Information on Waxcap Grassland
A comprehensive article on waxcap grasslands and their conservation, published in British Wildlife Magazine in 2004.
Note the Latin names of the waxcap group has recently undergone a comprehensive review in light of DNA data, so some of the Latin names in this article are likely to be out of date
Plantlife Waxcap ID Guide is a useful downloadable guide to the identification of the most common species of waxcap and allies, from the charity Plantlife.
Pembrokeshire Fungus Recording Network produced an excellent booklet called “Waxcaps of West Wales”, which is more comprehensive then the Plantlife guide. I can’t find a link to it but you may be able to get a copy by contacting the group directly.
Grassland Fungi: A Field Guide by Elsa Wood and Jon Dunkelman (Publisher: Monmouthshire Meadows Group).
This ﬁeld guide covers the species that are commonly found in meadows and other grasslands throughout the UK, including waxcaps and allies.