Our conservation adviser, Kevin, marvels at the beauty of waxcaps…

Autumn is the season for searching for mushrooms but they can be found all year round. The greatest variety can be found on the woodland floor, fallen logs and stumps, but grasslands can also support a fascinating range of fungi.

Ballerina Waxcap. Image Credit: Len Worthington (lennyworthington) at Mushroom Observer  CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the variety of colours, shapes and sizes, not all of them can be readily identified, many differ only in microscopic details, but a good field guide will enable you to put a name to more distinctive species.

Waxcaps are one of these groups, these colourful fungi thrive on ancient grasslands and include some of the UK’s rarest species. They are named because of their waxy texture, often greasy or shiny caps and their thick waxy gills. They come in a striking array of colours which are reflected in some of their common names, eg ballerina, crimson, date, parrot, scarlet and snowy.

As well as colour, distinctive smells are also a feature of this group such as honey, cedarwood and even burnt rubber!

Waxcaps are usually found alongside a range of other types of grassland fungi, which include spindles, corals, earth-tongues and the macabre Scarlet Caterpillar Club, which emerges from the unfortunate host, an overwintering moth pupa.

Scarlet Caterpillar Club. Image credit: David Evans, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Some species are relatively common and even occur in amenity grassland in towns and cities. However most species are only found in low nutrient sites that haven’t been disturbed for many years, this can include churchyards, lawns of old houses and orchards.

The richest waxcap sites are however found in extensive upland grassland, with 20 or more species possible from really good sites. The UK is internationally important for these habitats with a significant proportion all European waxcap grassland.

Unfortunately, there have been significant losses of waxcap sites, both historically and ongoing, through grassland being agriculturally improved by addition of fertilisers, lime or cultivation. Abandonment has also caused losses, through a reduction in grazing, with grasses becoming too rank or being replaced by scrub. These sites can however often be restored if the fungal hyphae remain undisturbed in the soil.  

It is this hidden nature that can mean important sites are lost, or even unknown. Grassland fungi are mostly subterranean with the fruit body the tip of the iceberg, and an iceberg that may not appear every year and when it does might only be visible for a couple of days. Therefore it can take many visits across several years to understand a site’s importance.

Technology has however made this process more straightforward, a simple soil sample can now, through the use of DNA analysis, help identify the hidden hyphae underground. The potential for this technology to help survey and monitor waxcap sites is increasing and will be invaluable to provide information for site management.

White Spindles Waxcap

If you have areas of unimproved pasture they could be rich in waxcaps and so will be damaged by unsuitable management. Plantlife have produced a number of useful identification and management guides, along with a scoring system that can help you identify the importance of your fields for grassland fungi.

Whilst the autumn is upon us there is still time to check for waxcaps, they will produce fruiting bodies until the start of regular winter frosts, so why not get out there and search for these hidden jewels.

Sources of further information:

Plantlife survey

Waxcaps and grassland fungi

Plantlife identification and management guide