Hygrocybe virginea (Wulfen: Fr.) P.D.Orton & Watling    
   (= Hygrocybe nivea (Scop.) Murrill)   
   (= Camarophyllus virgineus (Wulfen: Fr.) P.Kumm.)   
   (= Cuphophyllus virgineus (Wulfen: Fr.) Bon)   
Snowy Waxcap

Kingdom: Fungi
Phylum: Basidiomycota
Order: Agaricales

British distribution: Throughout Britain.
World distribution: Europe, Asia, North (and South?) America.

Hygrocybe virginea
Hygrocybe virginea in hill pasture, Muirshiel, Renfrewshire, October 2004.
Hygrocybe virginea
Hygrocybe virginea
Hygrocybe virginea in hill pasture, Muirshiel, Renfrewshire, October 2001.

Hygrocybe virginea is one of our most common waxcap fungi and a characteristic species of waxcap grasslands. Like most waxcaps it is a species of ancient, 'unimproved' pastures that have not been reseeded or subjected to chemical fertilisers, though it is less ecologically restricted than many. Its conspicuous fruitbodies are often the first to be seen when suitable ground is explored. Like some other Hygrocybe species, it can also occur in open woodland.

Identification and variation
H. virginea is generally an easy species to recognise, with pure white to ivory fruitbodies, 1–7 cm. in diameter, caps translucently striate to about halfway to the centre, gills strongly decurrent, smell unremarkable. It is included in many popular guides to the larger fungi and is well depicted and described by Boertmann (2010). Small specimens can closely resemble H. russocoriacea, which is usually a more delicate species but quickly distinguished by its strong smell of leather (specifically 'russian leather' though the subtlety of this escapes me). H. russocoriacea is less common, but the two can grow intermingled. The waxy texture and thick gills should distinguish it from various Clitocybe species.

The limits of the species are, however, somewhat uncertain. Smaller specimens, with supposed differences in spore size, though these complicated by common occurrence of 2- and 3-spored basidia with larger spores, were commonly separated as H. nivea, though this is now generally (and rightly!) treated as a synonym. More difficult are those cases when the caps are strongly cream in colour.
•   H. ochraceopallida was described as a new species on sand-dunes by the distinguished amateur, the late P.D. Orton, but most authorities, e.g. Boertmann (loc.cit.), consider it a variety of H. virginea. In my view, Peter Orton had this right. It is seemingly a tougher species, with apparently a more rigid cap cuticle, fairly uniform in its cream-straw colour and ecologically distinct, occuring on well-drained sandy, gravelly or chalky soils. In some years it is frequent at Muirshiel, where we have been monitoring the waxcap grasslands for many years, and where the soil, developed over baryta spoil, clearly suits it. It is surely a separate taxon and specific rank seems most appropriate, this apparently being supported by recent DNA work (Babos et al. 2011). Currently ongoing molecular work on Hygrocybe at Kew may provide futher insight.
•   Claimed to be the same or similar to H. ochraceopallida is Camarophyllus cereopallidus, described from Europe and reportedly having unusually short basidia but needing further study. It is unreported or not given recognition in Britain, and if, as some claim, the photograph in Dähncke & Dähncke (1980, pg. 111, as Camarophyllus niveus), also Dähncke (1993, pg. 144, again as Camarophyllus niveus), represents this species, then it would seem likely to be a cream-coloured variant of H. virginea.

Another variant or closely related species is H. fuscescens, which has a brown centre to the cap and slightly brownish striations. Some authorities, e.g. Candusso (1997), consider it a species, but Boertmann (loc.cit.) considers it a variety of H. virginea. This, too, is frequent at Muirshiel in some years and seems to differ from H. virginea only in colour.

H. virginea sometimes has pink colouration in the stem or lilac-tinted gills, but these are now known to be effects of fungal pathogens.

•   Babos, M., Halász, K., Zagyva, T., Zöld-Balogh, Á., Szegõ, D., & Bratek, Z. (2011). Preliminary notes on dual relevance of ITS sequences and pigments in Hygrocybe taxonomy. Persoonia 26: 99–107.
•   Boertmann, D. (2010). The genus Hygrocybe, 2nd revised edition. Fungi of Northern Europe vol. 1, Danish Mycological Society.
•   Candusso, M. (1997). Hygrophorus s.l., Fungi Europaei 6, Libreria Basso, Alassio.
•   Dähncke, R.M. (1993). 1200 Pilze in Farbfotos, AT Verlag Aarau, Stuttgart.
•   Dähncke, R.M., & Dähncke, S.M. (1980). 700 Pilze in Farbfotos (ed. 2), AT Verlag Aarau, Stuttgart.

© A.J. Silverside
Uploaded May 2014
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