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WAXCAPS IN CUMBRIA

This family of fungi goes by the name of Hygrocybe, meaning "moist head". They have a high water content within a waterproof waxy layer. Some are covered with a slimy layer on the cap.

  • They are found on open unfertilised grassland (a declining habitat) and old cemetries, usually from September to early November with a peak around early October.
  • Their relatively small size and high water content allow them to survive where the sun and wind create very drying conditions.
  • They are very sensitive to the high nitrogen content of artificial fertiliser and are indicators of ancient unfertilised grassland. A good site may contain a dozen to twenty species; a site that has been treated with artificial fertiliser is unlikely to have more than one or two species.
  • Recent research suggests they have a role in recycling nitrogen deep in the soil, rather than sapropytes recycling the top layers of leaf litter.
  • Fruiting bodies can be erratic in numbers from one year to the next depending on the weather, especially the level of rainfall. The extensive networks of mycelia in the soil are also sensitive to disturbance and can take years to recover. Because of the downward facing cap, spores are not generally dispersed over large areas and can take up to twenty years to develop sufficiently to produce fruiting bodies.
  • Their distribution in Britain is mainly towards the wetter west and north. Cumbria is therefore a good place to look for them, especially on the low fells, on limestone commons, in dune slacks and old churchyards.
  • They form an interesting group because of the variety of colour and gill form. Some species are very similar and require specialist identification; there is still much discussion as to which actually form separate species or are variations. I have followed Boertmann's naming of taxa and the British Mycological Society's common names.
  • Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, launched a Cumbria Waxcap Survey in 2010. Over the next year or two it is hoped to gain a better understanding of their occurrence and distribution in Cumbria. If you have any records please send them to me via the contact link above or to Tullie House via www.lakelandwildlife.co.uk

With one exception these examples were photographed on Birkrigg Common, Ulverston, where I have found about 15 - 20 different species/varieties between August and November. The selection is offered to illustrate the variety that is possible on a good site. I am much indebted to Dr. Mike Hall for his helpful advice and suggestions but any errors are my responsibilty!

Splendid Waxcap H. splendidissima. Largest species, a speciality of the north and Scotland. Tomato red cap, stem fibrillose but smoother than punicea, stem flesh saffron yellow. Said to smell of honey when it dries. May be confused with a large coccinea; narrowly adnate gills and spore examination should confirm.
Crimson Waxcap H. punicea. Large species, initially dark red, stem coarsely fibrillose and flesh of stem white. Cap often turns red then yellow with age.
Meadow Waxcap H. pratensis. Medium to large species, dry apricot orange cap, paler decurrent gills. Often distorts as it ages.
Heath Waxcap H. laeta. Small orange species with viscid cap when fresh. Gill edges viscid and seen to be transparent with a hand lens.
Toasted Waxcap H. colemanniana. Brown cap pales at edges as it ages and may then show darker striae. Strongly decurrent gills, white with a tinge of brown. Look for interveining and furcation of gills. Stem white. Nationally scarce, except on chalk downs.
Earthy Waxcap H. fornicata. More grey brown than Toasted and with narrowly adnate gills.
Golden Waxcap H. chlorophana. Deep yellow cap, adnexed gills, stem yellow and slightly moist.
Honey Waxcap H. reidii. Lovely deep orange greasy cap when fresh, often crenellated. Gills almost decurrent, paler with tinge of lilac darkening with age. Smell of honey, especially when stem base is rubbed or crushed.
Snowy Waxcap H. virginea. Small pure white caps. Strongly decurrent gills. This species is very common in Cumbria and the Midlands.
Cedarwood Waxcap H. russocoriacea. More ivory colour than white. Much less common than Snowy but can be frequent where it occurs. Smell of pencil shavings (cedar)!
Snowy Waxcap variety H virginea var. ochraceopallida. Usually a bit more robust than virginea with a pinkish/buff cap rather than pure white. Usually found on limestone. Slight earthy smell rather than cedar. Scarce nationally (or under recorded)
Snowy Waxcap variety H virginea var. fuscescens. This variety was unrecorded in Cumbria and scarcer nationally than var. ochraceopallida. It has a more distinct brown, rather than pinkish/buff, central spot and sometimes a smaller more distinct, rather than broader, central umbo. Boertmann indicates intermediate forms occur of these varieties.
Parrot Waxcap H. psittacina. Slimy and green when fresh. Light affects the pigment so it turns brown, yellow brown and even canary yellow. Stem usually remains green near the top (in shade). A specimen (top right) that was half hidden in the grass is both bright green and bright yellow, hence the name.
Scarlet Waxcap H. coccinea. Usually smaller than Splendid and Crimson waxcaps, say 2 - 5cm and broadly adnate gills as opposed to narrowly adnate of other two. Often in large groups, centre may go buff/grey with age.
Blackening Waxcap H. conica. A small example, size and colour very variable, but usually with a characteristic greenish tinge. Turns black with age and qickly with handling. Now divided into several species by DNA analysis.
Dune Waxcap H conica var. conicoides. Appearance very similar to H conica on left but not blackening as much. This one from Askam Lots, not Birkrigg. I find these on the Duddon reserves in July - much earlier than the H. conica Birkrigg species.
Butter Waxcap H. ceracia. Deep yellow 1.5 - 3 cm cap, pale gills decurrent, thin dry-ish stem (<3 mm). H insipida has a moist stem when fresh.
Oily Waxcap H quieta 1.5 cm cap short thick (0.5 cm) stem orange esp. towards top, slightly decurrent gills orange. Cap slightly greasy, stem dry. Slight smell of cloves (bugs?) if anything.
Orange Waxcap H aurantiosplendens Cap 5 cm viscid bicoloured. Paler gills narrowly adnate, stems sulphur yellow and orange-yellow and fibrillose. An old punicea could look similar but generally dry, more yellow with crimson patches, and distorted by that stage. Nationally scarce species; spore examination needed for full identification..
Persistent Waxcap A acutoconica (formerly persistens). Distinctive cap shape, can and did appear in August (Boertmann records it as usually the first waxcap of the season).
Now for the what I call the "L'al red 'uns" (being a Lancastrian). These are the small (< 25 mm) variable species that can be red, orange, yellow or a mixture of all three! Identifications are speculative as full determination requires spore examination.
Vermilion Waxcap H miniata There is also the rare H calciphila found only on calcareous habitats, which appears identical and can only be distinguised by spore shape. Fresh 0.5 to 1.2 cm, gills broadly adnate almost decurrent. Dries quickly to yellow when picked.
Spangle Waxcap H insipida moist cap 1.5 cm crenallated edge, orange/yellow or yellow (more orange when young), gills pale yellow with characteristic white edge, stem slightly moist (dried?) with characteristic orange belt below gills.
Bitter Waxcap H. mucronella. Small red species (2 cm cap) but microscopic examination needed. It should taste bitter if it is mucronella, but may be an insipida that has stayed scarlet.
  • On the same site are several of the "finger" fungi and earth tongues, which are also indicator species of ancient grassland. Very careful searching in the grass is needed on limestone as you are looking for something that can be between a 1p and 50p coin in size! Spore examination is needed for final identification but from the left they are probably Yellow Club, Apricot Club, White Spindles and a black Geoglossum, probably Hairy Earth Tongue.

The coral fungi are only slightly more obvious but still difficult to find. Rosso Coral Ramaria botrytis is nationally rare (only three previous records in Cumbria), but much more abundant and visible is the yellow Meadow Coral. The third is possibly another scarce species the Biege Coral, Clavulinopsis umbrinella.

  • There are also examples of puffballs and earthballs. These species release clouds of spores through holes in the cap.There are many closely related species that are difficult to identify:-

  • Three interesting small species typical of calcareous grassland are Earth Powdercap Cistoderma amianthinum, the Peppery Roundcap Stropharia pseudocyanea (with a strong peppery smell distinguishing it from S. caerulea and, again, known only from two or three sites in Cumbria) and (possibly) another Stropharia species:-

  • and members of the Pink-gill family (Entoloma) but these are hard to identify:-


  • Two species more usually found in woodland can also be found on grassland. Wood Blewit Lepista nuda and Clouded Funnel Clitocybe nebularis, the latter growing in a 29 ft ring with over 180 specimens - another ring near the summit was over 80 ft in diameter!