The waxcaps and woodwaxes include some of our most spectacular gilled fungi, but they are sensitive to pollution and nutrients; as a result, they usually disappear if land is treated with agricultural or arboricultural chemicals. Waxcaps (Cuphophyllus, Gliophorus, Gloioxanthomyces, Hygrocybe and Porpolomopsis species) are grassland saprophytes, while the relatives the woodwaxes (Hygrophorus species) are ectomycorrhizal with trees and shrubs. Separating the various small red, orange or yellow waxcaps is notoriously difficult, and many of them cannot be identified with certainty without resorting to microscopic analysis.
Originally proposed in 1907 by Dutch mycologist Johannes Paulus Lotsy (1867 - 1931), the family Hygrophoraceae includes many strikingly beautiful mushrooms. Some of the Hygrocybe fungi were previously included in the genera Hygrophorus and Camarophyllus. You may come across field guides in which the waxcaps and woodwaxes are included in the family Tricholomataceae rather than being accorder family status on their own.
The mushrooms in this group are generally referred to as the waxcap family, and among them are some rare species that should not be picked. In fact most species in this group are quite small, the majority are inedible and some of the rare ones (Hygrocybe calyptriformis, for example) are reported by some authorities to be poisonous. Many of the mushrooms in this group have slimy, sticky or greasy caps that start off conical; and they have thick, waxy gills. All produce white spore prints.
Many of the species in this family are red or orange. Others are bright yellow, ivory, white, brown, green or black and some even change colour quite significantly as they age. The Parrot Waxcap (Hygrocybe psittacina), for example, has a cap that often starts off green or purple and turns yellow or orange. This variation in colours makes identification that much harder, and so finding specimens at various stages of development is a great help; however, it may be necessary to look at spores, gill trama (the flesh of the gills) and/or cap surface under a high-powered microscope in order to identify some of the more difficult species.
There are some 150 European species recorded in the family Hygrophoraceae.
For more information about Hygrocybe and Hygrophorus fungi and a deeper insight into the ecology and structure of waxcap and woodwax fungi featured in our Hygrophoraceae Gallery pages, please see Pat O'Reilly's latest book Fascinated by Fungi, author-signed copies of which are available online here...