Hygrocybe punicea (Fr.) P. Kumm. - Crimson Waxcap

Phylum: Basidiomycota - Class: Agaricomycetes - Order: Agaricales - Family: Hygrophoraceae

Hygrocybe punicea - Crimson Waxcap

One of the largest of the waxcaps, Hygrocybe punicea is an infrequent find on cropped grassland and regularly mown churchyards. It occurs in late summer and autumn. This lovely mushroom often occurs in small clusters, and when young it is sometimes covered with a whitish bloom. Initially deep blood red, the caps develop paler patches as they age.

The Crimson Waxcap is often confused with the much-more-common Scarlet Waxcap Hygrocybe coccinea, which is generally a smaller and more gregarious mushroom with a brighter red cap that is sometimes yellowish towards the margin even when young and not fully expanded.

Mature specimens of Hygrocybe punicea - Crimson Waxcap

Distribution

Widespread in Britain and Ireland, particularly in upland areas on acidic soil, the Crimson Waxcap is also found across most of central and northern mainland Europe where grassland of high enough quality (low in nutrients and in particular not treated with artificial fertilisers) occurs. This waxcap is recorded also in parts of North America, where it is mainly a woodland species.

Taxonomic history

In his Systema mycologicum of 1821 the pioneering Swedish mycologist Elias Magnus Fries described the Crimson Waxcap, giving it the name Agaricus puniceus (at a time when most gilled mushrooms were included initially in the genus Agaricus). It was the German mycologist Paul Kummer who, in 1871, transferred this species to the Hygrocybe genus, thus creating its currently-accepted scientific name.

A group Crimson Waxcaps, Hygrocybe punicea, in west Wales

Synonyms of Hygrocybe punicea include Agaricus puniceus Fr., Hygrophorus puniceus (Fr.) Fr., and Hygrocybe acutopunicea R. Haller Aar. & F.H. Møller.

Etymology

The genus Hygrocybe is so named because fungi in this group are always very moist. Hygrocybe means 'watery head'. The specific epithet punicea comes from Latin and means crimson or purplish red.

Above: Although often either solitary os with just a few scattered fruitbodies, occasionally, as in the example on the left, Hygrocybe punicea fruits gregariously. This picture shows just part of a group of some 30 mushrooms on a lawn that had in the past been part of an old churchyard in south Ceredigion, Wales.

Wales is one of the very best places in Europe for seeing these and many other waxcaps.

Identification guide

Pale old cap of Hygrocybe punicea

Cap

The 3 to 10cm diameter domed or broadly umbonate caps with irregular downturned margins are dark blood red with usually a yellowish margin. The caps fade gradually, often in patches from the centre outwards, to become yellowish buff (as in the mature specimen shown on the left, above, and in the aged umbonate example seen here on the immediate left).

Apart from in very wet weather or extreme drought, the caps are greasy to moderately slimy.

Gills of Hygrocybe punicea, the Crimson Waxcap

Gills

Initially yellow, but reddening gradually as the fruitbody ages, the gills are adnexed or free; they are moderately distant.

 

Stem of Hygrocybe punicea, the Crimson Waxcap

Stem

Level, 5 to 15cm long and 1.3 to 2cm in diameter, with a somewhat rooting base; no stem ring; coarsely fibrillose; yellow flushed with red in its upper section, shading into orange and then white towards the base.

In all but very wet weather the stems of the Crimson Waxcap are dry to the touch.

 

Spores

Ellipsoidal to cylindrical, smooth, 8-11 x 4.5-5.5µm; inamyloid.

Spore print

White.

Odour/taste

Not distinctive.

Habitat & Ecological role

Sometimes solitary but more often in small groups on closely cropped or mown grassland where artificial fertilisers are not spread.

Waxcaps have long been considered to be saprobic on the dead roots of grasses and other grassland plants, but it is now considered likely that there is some kind of mutual relationship between waxcaps and mosses.

Season

August to November in Britain and Ireland.

Similar species

Hygrocybe coccinea is smaller, usually a brighter red, and has a less fibrous reddish stem.

Hygrocybe splendidissima, the Splendid Waxcap, is similar although typically slightly smaller; its cap does not turn blotchy and fade to buff, and its stem is usually flattened and twisted so that the longitudinal fibres form spiral patterns around the stem. (In the past it was considered to be merely a form of Hygrocybe punicea.)

Hygrocybe conica has a more pointed cap and yellow stem flesh; it turns black with age or when cut.

Three lovely Crimson Waxcaps, West Wales UK

Culinary Notes

The Crimson Waxcap is reported to be edible, and being a large mushroom it does look quite tempting; however, there are reports from the USA of people suffering very unpleasant stomach upsets after eating this species. This is one of the most beautiful of all waxcaps, and without doubt the best feast you can get from the Crimson Waxcap is a feast for the eyes. Other than for research purposes, we would never want to pick these 'orchids of the fungi world'.

As the young Crimson Waxcaps on the right demonstrate, in dry weather these grassland mushrooms may begin fading long before the caps have fully expanded. Waxcaps are not the easiest of fungi to identify, and relying on cap colour is not wise; even whenthe experts have checked all of the identifying characters they do not always reach a definite conclusion.

Young specimens of Hygrocybe punicea, Crimson Waxcap, in hot dry weather

Reference Sources

Fascinated by Fungi, Pat O'Reilly 2016.

Fungi of Northern Europe, Volume 1 - The Genus Hygrocybe, David Boertmann, 2010.

Dictionary of the Fungi; Paul M. Kirk, Paul F. Cannon, David W. Minter and J. A. Stalpers; CABI, 2008

Taxonomic history and synonym information on these pages is drawn from many sources but in particular from the British Mycological Society's GB Checklist of Fungi and (for basidiomycetes) on Kew's Checklist of the British & Irish Basidiomycota.

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