Mushroom of the Month: March, 2016
As deep winter settles on the Redwood Coast, you’ll begin to notice many small red, orange and yellow Waxy Caps (Hygrocybe); sprinkled through the understory of redwood forests; beacons of color in the dark duff. California enjoys a great diversity of Waxy Caps, many of which have special affinity for Coast Redwood, California Bay-laurel and Monterey Cypress habitats. Unfortunately, we are using 'borrowed' European names for many of these lovely waxy caps, and as we continue to learn about our mycoflora, we are realizing that many of our species are distinct, and deserving of their own names.
One common and fairly distinctive species is Hygrocybe laetissima; which has a scarlet to bright red, moist to slightly viscid cap, gills that are whitish, yellowish to pinkish when young, but become pinkish to reddish in age (occasionally with an yellowish-orange tone), a yellow stipe that has a reddish base (often entirely white when young), and a surface covered in vertical striations and fibrils. This species is very common in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Santa Cruz Mountains, and ranges north into Oregon, but is uncommon north of Mendocino County.
Originally described by Smith and Hesler in 1942 from Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, this name has mostly been forgotten or at least heavily underused in California. The reason for this is that we have been content to use the name of a similar species (H. punicea) to almost all of our large red Hygrocybe. Hygrocybe punicea is a European name for a supposedly widespread species; but it is very likely that genetic evidence will indicate that it doesn’t occur in California, and that the similar-looking western North American taxa should not be referred to by that name.
The other Hygrocybe punicea-like taxon in our area can be recognized by its dry to slightly tacky, ox-blood red cap, pale yellowish gills, and darker orangish to reddish stipe that also shows vertical-striations (an important feature that helps differentiate between the H. coccinea and H. punicea complexes).
H. coccinea sensu CA typically is a smaller mushroom than either of the latter two species, and has a bright blood red to dark red cap, red gills, and a smooth red stipe (lacking any vertical fibrils or striations). It is common and widespread in CA in mossy forest understories, especially under redwood.
Although H. coccinea has been reported as edible, there are mixed reports about the edibility of H. punicea, and local experience is lacking. Be cautious when sampling these species - it's probably better to admire them.
We begin to get into an area of seeming intergrades and other curveballs when we start seeing the uncommon H. splendidissima (sensu CA): a mushroom that resembles both H. laetissima and H. coccinea. Hygrocybe splendidissima has a scarlet to blood red cap, young gills that are pale when young but redder in age, (almost as if the the cap color leaches downward), and a smooth stipe (occasionally developing appressed fibrils in age). The smooth stipe is probably the best feature to distinguish this species from H. punicea and H. laetissima, and the pale gills help distinguish it from H. coccinea. Younger specimens can be strikingly similar to H. aurantiosplendens, which has a scarlet-red cap when young, but quickly fades to orange.