The colourful jewels that are Waxcap fungi are springing up as if by magic in grassland around the town.  Late October into November is the time of year when many fungi put up their fruiting bodies and Waxcaps are among the most colourful and beautiful of our native species.

As the name suggests, the caps look as if they could be made of candlewax, translucent and smooth, sometimes greasy to touch.  The Slimy Waxcap is well named with a coating of watery mucin that makes the cap glisten.

There is a whole rainbow among the thirty or so UK Waxcaps ranging from the aptly named Snowy Waxcap which is pure white, through yellows, oranges and reds, to green and grey, even black ones.  Many change colour as they mature.  The Parrot Waxcap is green when it first emerges but often changes to red, orange and yellow as it ages.

Generally Waxcap fruiting bodies are small, although you have to remember that most of the fungus is unseen underground where there is a whole network of hyphal threads that make up the main colony.  You are most likely to see Waxcaps in poor unimproved meadows and pastures.  The longer the grass has been undisturbed the more species you might see.   A pasture that has not been ploughed for more than a century stands a good chance of being home to multiple species.

One of the best local sites to see a range of species is the James Cornish Field on Salcombe Hill.  Here you can find Butter, Honey, Golden, Parrot, Scarlet and Slimy Waxcaps.  You can also see the contrast between the Blackening Waxcap and two white species, Snowy and Cedar Wood Waxcap.  You might not expect the latter to be white but it gets its name because it has a characteristic woody smell, some guides liken it to the smell of pencil shavings.  The Honey Waxcap is distinguished from the other yellow/orange species by its honey smell.

There is a colony of Pink Waxcaps on the grass beside the bowling greens in town.  They come up like pointed ice lollies but, as they open, the cap splits and curls like a pale tutu which accounts for their other name which is the Ballerina Waxcap.  Less aesthetically pleasing are the many drab brown Slimy Waxcaps that are growing among them. 

Waxcaps are a fascinating group and some people might ask if they are edible, but the Biodiversity Group restricts itself to raising awareness of what we have not what you do with them.

Ed Dolphin

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