The Colour of Christmas

Sue Parker seeks seasonal solace in a calorie-controlled stroll
Based on an article by Sue Parker in Algarve Resident, December 2015. Algarve Resident is the leading English-language newspaper and the source of essential information for Residents and would-be Residents in the Algarve. More information about Algarve Resident...

Too much rich food, more than plenty to drink, and not enough exercise. It’s Christmastime once more, and how can we be expected to resist all these tempting seasonal excesses? The weighty consequences are clear: the writing is on the wall. But so much that comes to us in stark black and white declares menacingly, ‘remember this... or else.’ Too often we simply forget, but sometimes we choose to forget.

Scarlet Waxcap

Scarlet Waxcaps love low-nutrient lawns and undisturbed trackside verges

In the most vivid of our dreams bold regal colours take precedence over washed out pastel shades. In like vein we love the kingdom of plants partly, perhaps, for the famous forty shades of green in its leaves but much more, surely, for the riotous rainbow of colours in its flowers. Leaves vary greatly in form, but for most of us it is the flower itself that triggers recognition of a plant.

In another season and another kingdom lurks a group of organisms, silent, crouching, unmoving, that would be all but invisible were they not decked in more bold colours than occur in any rainbow. Their common name is waxcaps. Some of these grassland and woodland mushrooms are extremely rare, and yet they are rarely missed where they do occur. That’s because they are as conspicuous as bright shiny baubles on a Christmas tree, and every bit as artificial looking.

Persistent Waxcap

The Persistent Waxcap, unfazed by frost, heat, drought and drying winds – very much at home in the Algarve at Christmas.

Peggy Lee, who starred in the 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues, had a hit record with the theme song I can Sing a Rainbow. Curiously, the opening verse begins with the words, “Red and yellow and pink and green, orange and purple and blue…” but where is pink in a rainbow? Or purple, for that matter? Nowhere, but these colours and many more abound in the wonderful world of waxcaps.

Waxcaps are late season sights in northern climes, and the mountains of Wales are Europe’s waxcap Mecca. There, up to 34 different species can occur in one localised patch of low-fertility grassland. Waxcaps are indicators of environmental quality: they quickly disappear from land subject to pollution or dosed with artificial fertilisers, so what chance of seeing these colourful cogumelos here in the Algarve? I was thrilled to learn that they are doing well here, both in terms of abundance and diversity.

Lawns managed by mowing but spared the ‘weed and feed’ treatment may throw up a few ‘weeds’ in springtime, but owners are more than compensated by the sight of waxcaps towards the turn of the year. Identification to species level is not easy, but there are a few distinctive ones worth looking out for – and the others are no less enjoyable for remaining anonymous to all but the most meticulous of mycologists.

Scarlet Waxcap Hygrocybe coccinea is, as its names suggest, bright red. It generally takes several decades of chemical-free lawn care before these burnished beacons move in. More tolerant of enrichment is the Meadow Waxcap Hygrocybe pratensis, a big blousy beige mushroom that some people cook and eat. Not quite snow white but more of an ivory hue, Hygrocybe virginea has been given the common name Snowy Waxcap, and these little gems can pop up in constellations, turning a trackside verge into a green-and-white night skyscape.

I must also mention one of the most durable of the Algarve waxcaps, a tough toadstool that doesn’t shrink in the face of hot sun and drying winds. Known as the Persistent Waxcap, Hygrocybe acutoconica produces yellow and orange pyramidal peaks with neatly scalloped margins.

The Hunt for Pink December

Pink Waxcap
The beautiful Ballerina, also known, unsurprisingly, as the Pink Waxcap.

Known variously as the Pink Waxcap and the Ballerina, Hygrocybe calyptriformis is one of the world’s rarest mushrooms. Britain’s professional mycologists – an even rarer and far more endangered species – thought that this beauty was restricted to a mere handful of sites... until 2007, when hordes of volunteers carried out waxcap surveys. Hundreds of new Ballerina sites were found: the Pink Waxcap, as beautiful as ever, is not so rare as was feared - in Britain at least.

Known to occur, although extremely rare, in several other European countries, Hygrocybe calyptriformis has occasionally been recorded in central Portugal. To date I have been unable to find any reports of this magnificent mushroom here in the Algarve. But I  wonder how many people have looked for it and in how many places? It’s hardly a lost cause… maybe more a case of ‘not found yet’.

My plan is to walk off some of those Christmas calories looking for delightfully decorative waxcaps, the orchids of the fungal kingdom. The Ballerina might lead me on a merry dance, and I know I might not succeed; but on the other hand finding a Ballerina Waxcap in the Algarve would be an experience impossible to forget!

Merry Christmas. And Happy Bauble Hunting too.

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