Jewels of the autumn

Blog post by Ian Senior on 20 Nov, 2020
Earlham Cemetery is a County Wildlife Site close to the centre of Norwich that is rich in wildlife, and NWT has worked with local residents and Norwich City Council to develop a management plan for the site. Ian Senior, from the Friends of Earlham Cemetery, tells us more about this magical place.

The nights have now drawn in and it's starting to get cold but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of enjoying the great outdoors. This is the time that little colourful jewels can be found growing in special places, but you have to search hard to find them. They are fleeting in their appearance and often not seen again for years. They come in various shades of green, yellow, orange, red and white and brighten up our churchyards, cemeteries, open grassland and dunes across the county. But what are they? They are the waxcap fungi and they only appear when the conditions are just right, fruiting for a few days or weeks before disappearing back underground again.

Britain is a stronghold for waxcaps (a term that covers species in the genera Hygrocybe, Cuphophyllus, Porpolomopsis and Gliophorus) in Europe. You can find them in lowland fens to mountain tops, each species specialised for the ecological niche they inhabit. In the UK most species of waxcaps grow in the wetter western areas, Wales being a particular stronghold for them. In Norfolk the range of species found is more limited but that doesn’t detract from their allure.

Blackening waxcap, by Ian Senior

Snowy waxcap, by Ian Senior

Waxcaps require low nutrient, undisturbed grassland to grow in and this type of environment is now very rare across the country and especially so here in the east. In Norfolk there are now just tiny isolated pockets of this type of grassland dotted around the countryside. Often the only remaining low nutrient grassland in a given area is found in churchyards and larger cemeteries, though old estates will often retain some good quality grassland where these fungi can grow too. These areas have not suffered from the addition of fertilisers prevalent on amenity grassland and new housing estate green spaces, though they are still subject to nitrogen deposition and variable mowing regimes.

Waxcap grasslands need to be mown short and the arisings removed to keep fertility low in order to create the perfect environment for these fungi. Waxcaps are thought to be either mycorrhizal (in a symbiotic relationship with a plant) or saprobic (growing on decaying organic matter) in nature but there also appears to be a relationship with a range of mosses but what this relationship is still needs further investigation.

It usually takes many years before some of the pioneering species of waxcaps start to colonise grassland. Snowy waxcaps are often one of the first species to find a footing in a sward. We currently do not know why it takes so long before colonisation occurs. We can find apparently perfect, low fertility, grasslands but no waxcaps growing there at all. There will be many reasons for this delay but it is yet to be elucidated.

When we do discover suitable pockets of waxcap rich grassland it is so important that they are treated with great care so they can survive into the future. Whatever mowing regime or grazing patterns that have been used to that point, they need to be maintained into the future. As they have helped to cultivate the grassland in the first place - usually over decades. If they are not, the waxcap diversity of a site declines and they will eventually disappear. This is where you can help by recording what you find. It helps build up a picture of where our precious waxcap grasslands are here in Norfolk so they can be protected and enhanced.

The Norfolk waxcap list contains a good range of the commoner species and some rarely seen species that have only been recorded on the odd occasion. For instance, the pink ballerina waxcap (Porpolomopsis calyptriformis) has only ever been spotted once in our county.

So which waxcaps are you likely to encounter? The most frequent species seen is the snowy waxcap (Cuphophyllus virgineus). It’s a beautiful white species with decurrent gills running down the stipe and can come in several forms. The pure white form is the commonest but there is a variety with a coffee coloured cap too. If you ever find one with a cedar smell then you have found one of our rarest species, cedarwood waxcap (Hygrocybe russocoriacea). I’ve only ever encountered this once in the Brecks a few years ago. Snowy waxcaps tend to appear in small groups but can also form rings in good years. Other commonly seen species are the small yellow types, golden (Hygrocybe chlorophana) and butter (Hygrocybe ceracea) waxcaps. These two do look very similar but can be told apart by whether they have a flattened, grooved stipe or whether there is a translucent ‘eye’ at the top of the cap.
Blackening waxcap, by Ian Senior

Blackening waxcap, by Ian Senior

One of the easiest species to identify is the parrot waxcap (Gliophorus psittacinus) (featured in the header photo). It comes in a range of colours, yellow, green to brown and is very slimy to touch. Recent work by scientists at Kew has revealed several similar but rare lookalikes, one of which (Gliophorus perplexus) was spotted in 2017 in dune grassland on the north Norfolk coast. The last of the really common waxcaps you are likely to come across is the blackening waxcap (Hygrocybe conica) also known as a ‘witches hat’ due to its conical shape and it blackening over time or with handling. This is a fairly robust species which usually grows in groups. It does form rings on occasion too. It can be found across the county in suitable places. If you are walking on dune grassland you might encounter a very similar looking species that doesn’t change colour. This is the rare dune waxcap (Hygrocybe conicoides) and is well worth the effort to seek it out.

If you are keen to go waxcap hunting in the county, Plantlife has developed an app to help record waxcap grasslands. The app allows anybody to send in records to them based on the colour of a grassland fungus found. This makes it easy to send in records as you do not need to identify the fungus to species level which can be very tricky to do. The idea behind the app is to build up a picture of where interesting grassland is across the country and for these areas to be search by more experienced field mycologists in the future. There is still about a month where our waxcap jewels can be found so why not download the app and get searching your local churchyard, common, cemetery, heath or dune and see what waxcap colours you can find?

Header image: Parrot waxcap, by Ian Senior
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