Waxing Lyrical

4th October 2008

The National Trust is asking visitors to its properties to help track down and protect waxcaps… colourful, but threatened, grassland gems. Jack Watkins finds out more.

Ham House has some of the finest ‘formal’ gardens in Britain, but its less manicured areas of expansive lawn are also a grand place to go fungi-spotting. Now this news may not exactly have you rushing to catch the next bus to Richmond, but it’s actually not as nerdish a pastime as you might think. For waxcaps are the pin-up boys and girls of the mouldy bacterial world, coming in an enchanting array of colours and shapes, and their role in nature is a vital one.

The confirmation of Ham House’s pre-eminence as a waxcap stronghold comes as a result of a survey carried out by the National Trust last autumn. Having enlisted the help of the public to look out for them while visiting their properties, the best places (in addition to Ham, and in no particular order), turned out to be Wakehurst Place and Petworth Park in West Sussex, and Winkworth Arboretum, Surrey. Now the Trust is asking people to join in again and log their sighting on a specially designed website. Why, though, should we bother?

The first point to make about fungi is that they play a very important part in the functioning of the ecosystem, releasing nutrients necessary for plant life by recycling huge amounts of dead matter from leaves, wood and animals. Without their activities, the world would soon become a giant rubbish tip. The mycorrhizal [fantastic word; refers to the symbiotic relationship between mushrooms and other organisms] activities of fungi are associated with just about all the trees and plants we enjoy. Mostly, they live under-ground as a matt of threads, but after the summer, usually encouraged by the onset of wet autumnal conditions, they start to push through the earth, producing the toadstools or mushrooms which release spores to produce more fungi.

Now, much studying and observation of fungi over the years has tended to be done in woodland… but waxcaps, although they do also grow in woods, are features of old, unimproved grasslands and closely mown lawns – and these, thanks to the loss of hay meadows, and to developments such as silage making, have become scarcer in recent decades. Ploughing and applying fertilisers affects the balance of the soil conditions that slow-growing fungi need. In parks and cemeteries, the practice of leaving grass cuttings after mowing raises soil nutrient levels and deters fungi growth: waxcaps prefer short, moss-rich grassland. Churchyards can be good places to find them, and if you desist from using lawncare products or fertilisers, you may get them in the garden. One of the places where they can be found in relative profusion is on the estates of the National Trust, hence this initiative.

You might feel that you need to be an expert recorder to be of much help in what still appears to be a specialised subject. But waxcaps are easy, because their rainbow range of colours – red, orange, green, yellow and even amethyst – makes them simple to spot. There are thought to be around 60 different types, and while precise identification of some can be tricky without recourse to the microscope, observation can easily be carried out on a casual stroll over grasslands, without the need to get down on hands and knees.

Waxcaps are certainly a glamorous bunch, and they, and the fairy clubs and earth tongues which share similar habitats, vary in height from between two and four inches when above ground. They have stout stems and caps that, in some cases, resemble miniature parasols. ‘Ballerina’ is the only pink toadstool in Britain (an obvious aid to identification) and it frequently appears in areas with other waxcaps, so a sighting is a clue that there could be other species nearby. ‘Snowy’ is a milky colour, with a cap that is slimy and domed when young,; as it ages, the cap flattens and turns concave. Trickier to differentiate are the Meadow and Honey Waxcaps, because both are orange. The former tends to a peachy shade, but weather and light conditions can alter the appearance, so the Trust is asking participants to simply record a general colour reference.

As well as helping its naturalists uncover the areas of its estates which contain the greatest concentrations of species, the Trust hopes that Waxcap Watch makes for a public celebration of fungi. It also plans special ‘fungi forays’ at various properties for those who prefer to be introduced by an expert to this unexpectedly colourful little world that exists beneath our very feet.

See www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hiddennature for more details.

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