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Halloween Special – The Witch’s Hat

This mushroom is one of, if not ‘the‘ most common of all the Waxcaps (known as the Hygrocybes) which I recently discovered on the 30th October. By posting on the first day of November I realise I’ve missed the Halloween deadline (excuse the pun) and I’m sorry. But Halloween ‘is’ the eve of ‘All Saints Day’ – making my error simply forgiven! Or something like that…

Hygrocybe conicaAlthough it has been a relatively bad season for mushrooms and fungi alike due to the dry weather, this last week has proved fruitful, especially in relation to Waxcaps.

Because of the excellent timing, I had to feature the ‘Witch’s Hat’ or ‘Blackening Waxcap’ (Hygrocybe conica) to be my latest post.

As the common and scientific name suggests, the cap of this very common grassland mushroom is ‘conical’ in shape, usually broadly conical or bell-shaped (often irregularly lobed). The texture, common with all Waxcaps, is slimy and waxy and although quite small, is very noticeable in the grass due to it’s bright and striking colours. In this case, the colour can vary somewhat, but mainly you can see yellow/orange (sometimes with scarlet shades) – even hints of green can be present.

But the main feature you will recognise (again, shared with some other Waxcaps), is the ‘blackening’ effect (sounds very seasonal and horrific!). The older the mushroom is – the blacker it will get – although it does not auto-digest and turn to ink like the gills of the Inkcap genus.

Very old specimens turn completely black and appear to be decayed or burnt out. If picked, you will also notice it will bruise black upon handling. But if left alone, the blackening process will slowly take effect, starting mainly from the cap edge (see image above).

Keep a look out this (late) autumn and you may find some along with it’s more colourful friends. It can be found mainly in grassland in fields and woods, but is also common in ornamental lawns, waysides and even plant pots (as my mother discovered!) due to it being less sensitive to nitrogen enriched soil.

It is classed as edible and sometimes as inedible or poisonous from different references. But it is not deadly, and I’m guessing – not very palatable. It’s just best for looking at, which is good because it’s so good looking…

Witches hat

Very common Waxcap, found in field or woodland grass. Bright orange/yellow (sometimes with red or green hues) that blackens with age (see far left).

QUICK ID TABLE: BLACKENING WAXCAP / WITCH’S HAT Hygrocybe conica

CAP / FLESH

3-5.5cm accross. Conical or bell-shaped. Often irregularly lobed. Waxy. Yellow/ Orange colours. Blackens with age.

STEM

3-7 x 0.6-1 cm. Yellow, scarlet flush. Blackening streaks with age.

GILLS / SPORE PRINT

Adnexed or free. Pale yellow. Waxy.
Spore Print: White (see how to take a spore print here).

HABITAT / SEASON

Grass in fields or woods. Ornate gardens and plant pots too. Autumn.

EDIBILITY

Edible,but best avoided.

The Genus HYGROCYBE (Waxcaps): Characteristics to look out for:

• Small sized caps brightly coloured in reds, yellows, oranges, greens and whites.
• Caps are often conical or domed and normally greasy or slimy.
• Gills are waxy. Some bruise blackish when damaged.

See Kew gardens conservation news on the British Waxcap family here.

Halloween Special 2 – Dead Man’s Fingers

It’s Halloween today, so to make this post especially spooky I’ve had to put this freaky fungus in. And what a fantastic name it has too.

Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) grows on dead wood (usually beech & sycamore) throughout the year, and is very common. The fruiting body is black and irregularly club shaped, often in small groups. It’s of a small(ish) size, reaching up to 8cm in height and up to 3cm in diametre. It’s hard outer shell protects the white flesh within where the spores are produced.

As you can guess this fungus is quite inedible and I don’t think anyone would fancy a nibble anyway! But the best thing about it is it’s strange general appearance. As you can see in the picture below there’s a small group of them growing on dead wood. If you look at the two on the far left, you can see where they get their common name from. Spooky!

Dead Mans Fingers

Dead Mans Fingers – reaching out from the grave?

 

Dead Man's Fingers Pictures

A large collection of Xylaria polymorpha on the moss of dead wood (left). A Dead Man’s Finger cut in half exposing the white spore mass inside.

Halloween Special – The Witch’s Egg

In the spirit of Halloween which is closing in, I thought I’d add an entry about this intriguing and somewhat phallic fungus. At it’s peak (excuse the pun!) this time of year and in full bloom you can smell this beauty from quite a way off. The ‘pong’ is quite unpleasant but not altogether offensive. But you certainly do notice it, even when you can’t see it!

Smelly FungusThe Witch’s Egg (or more commonly known as) Stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) initially shows itself as an ‘egg shape’ form in the ground from summer to late autumn, found in most woods and is very common. The egg sack pokes out of the ground and is half buried in the soil. It literally looks like a freshly shelled hard boiled egg planted right in the soil!

The egg sack is quite soft and has a gelatinous feel about it (which would be the jelly like layer beneath). This young stage of the fungus is said to be edible but not highly rated, and I haven’t bothered yet. It’s also said to be a good aphrodisiac – but that’s surely some mad guy making it up because it looks like a ‘you-know-what’ (when fully grown of course)!

It’s probably the same guy who had the enormous fun of scientifically naming this species – ‘Phallus impudicus’! Which, as you can probably guess, translates to something like ‘shameless’ and ‘penis like’. It’s the rudest of all the fungi out there to be sure! But the phallic shape is only shown in its true glory when fully mature.

The egg soon breaks apart, showing the gloopy goo inside. That’s when you start getting the smell ‘eeking’ its way out. After time, as it grows, the adult specimen shows its familiar shape which can grow up to 25cm high. But on average you’re looking at around 14cm. And now the smell is quite obvious. There are many ways to describe it, but I’d say it’s almost ‘chemical like’, nicely mixed in with raw sewage! But fear not – it’s not too potent but potent enough, if you know what I mean.

The tip (or head) has a distinctive ‘bell shape’ (no filthy jokes please) that exudes spores from the tip! The head of the fungus is initially dark olive/black with the stinking spores. These are soon devoured and spread by insects in only a few days, leaving an unmistakable white honey comb pattern with raised ribs.

As you can see in the pictures below, it’s last days are quite dramatic. Like from some kind of horror movie, it gracefully (and wierdly) dissolves back into the earth from whence it came. It is a truly a fantastic fungus worthy of a halloween highlight. Look out (a smell out) for them this autumn.

Stinkhorn egg sack and mature stinkhoorn fungus

Left: A Stinkhorn egg breaking open and a fully mature Stinkhorn. Right: The head of the fungus is initially dark olive/black with sticky, stinking goo (see picture at the beginning of this post). This goo attracts flies, who in turn spread the spores to another place. Eventually it will be stripped of all this slime and leave a white ‘honeycomb’ tip, as seen here.

Dying Stinkhorn

End of days. A dying Stinkhorn as it dissolves back into the earth

Don’t cry for me Lacrymaria! – The Weeping Widow

The Weeping Widow (Lacrymaria lacrymabunda) has got to have one of the best common names I’ve heard of even though it has a negative vibe about it. It sounds like a toadstool you should avoid at all costs, but never fear, this mushroom is not poisonous but is in fact edible, though unfortunately a little bitter. I’ve read about a simple recipe where you can cook with butter or deep fry for a while and then serve with a sweet pickle to counteract the twinge of the bitter taste. Worth a try I think. I’ll let you know in a later post if I do…

It’s season is late spring to Autumn. Earlier in June, my father found a group of them at the edge of his garden (near soil and a paved patio). I’ve also found them growing from peoples gravel driveways! But these beauties were found on tufted grass in local park’s car park (near gravel and paving again). So this is interesting to note – as a general rule they tend to grow near (or on) paths and roadsides mainly in short grass.

It’s a medium sized yellow/ochre brown mushroom which is convex shaped which has a persistent central umbo (rounded bump) with a fine ‘fibre’ texture. As it grows older the cap flattens out and the brown coloured centre appears darker. The gills are dark brown/purple.

In it’s early development the upper part of the stem is trapped within the closed cap. Being related to the Ink Cap family (see discussion of this below on Lisa’s comment), it has inky black spores which characteristically leave their mark here. When the cap opens the fibre/cotton-like veil remnants can remain (NOT web-like like a Webcap), giving it a woolly edged appearance.

So why is it called the Weeping Widow? It’s a well earned name, because during moist/damp weather conditions it exudes droplets of water which many books term as ‘weeping’. Makes sense, but not as much as the Widow part!? See examples in the picture below (top left) of how the droplets form on the gills.

Weeping Widow (Lacrymaria velutina)

Medium ochre brown mushroom – The Weeping Widow

Weeping Widow Garden Mushroom

The Weeping Widow is common in gardens too. The top right picture shows the cotton-like veil breaking