You are in for a treat when you find a species of fungus from the genus Hygrocybe. Not like an edible treat you can much on, but a feast for your eyes! Many of these species are not necessarily poisonous, but aren’t good to eat because they are fragile and don’t have a distinct flavor. Though, this genus is comprised of some of the most attractive, brightly colored species in the entire kingdom.
Together with the larger, dull colored, slimy, gilled mushrooms in the genus Hygrophorus, a common label for both genera are the aptly titled ‘waxy caps’ because of their waxy appearance. Both genera are located in the family Hygrophoraceae, with some species being slimy, while others are dry and slightly tacky. There are over 150 species of Hygrocybe species so properly identifying can be quite the bore.
While I was hiking near Letchworth State Park in NY, I came across an immense troop of Hygrocybe species that knocked me to my knees (to take pictures, I didn’t get lightheaded or anything). One patch had nearly 1,000 bright orange individuals immerging from the forest floor! At first glance, I thought I hit the mother lode with Chanterelles, but upon gill examination, I found the truest of gills- fine, evenly spaced and deeply ridged.
I took some samples back to my campsite and hit the web. Identifying Hygrocybe species is no joke! There are several lookalikes, so you need to be on your game! After about an hour and a half, I had narrowed it down to three species, H. miniata, H. cantharellus and H. squamulosa. A white spore print confirmed the genus, but I had to learn about the minor differences in each of the three candidates. I learned that H. cantharellus has gills that run far down the stipe, and has a long stipe relative to its cap size. H. squamulosa has gills that are attached to the stipe, but do not run down it. The specimen I plucked had gills that slightly ran down the stipe, a feature described in Hygrocybe miniata. I had properly identified the fungus down to species.
The color of this species varies from red-orange to a light orange, with induvials fading with age. In this single habitat, I found both red-orange and light orange varieties. A single species of mushroom with a varying degree of color makes for a quite a confusing encounter. What’s even more mystifying, is that we don’t know how this species makes a living from the forest floor.
This species could possibly decay organic plant material, it could parasitize insects or plants, or this species may form mycorrhizal relationships with the trees. We simply don’t know yet. I do know one thing that is for sure though, without proper identification, we can’t learn anything. All the time some folks say to me, “Does it matter what species that little brown mushroom is?” and always, my answer will be yes. There is no learning about how species interact with the forest floor without knowing what species they are. Carl Linnaeus had it right. Without the father of modern taxonomy, the advancement of the disciplines involved in the natural world would be stunted. Soon because of our ability to properly identify fungi, we will learn exactly how Hygrocybe miniata functions in our ecosystems.