#057: The Witch’s Hat, Hygrocybe conica
Welcome back to creepy fungus month! I’m starting off this month with a mushroom that has a creepy name but is always fun to find: The Witch’s Hat. Hygrocybe conica gets its common name from the conic shape of its cap, its orange to red color, and its proclivity for bruising black. The Witch’s Hat is a small mushroom whose cap is 1 to 4cm across (rarely up to 6cm) and whose stipe is 3 to 8cm tall. Young specimens of this mushroom truly are beautiful. The bright, red to orange cap nicely compliments the lighter, orange to yellow stipe. When young, the cap is conical with a curved top and edges that curve slightly inward. The cap opens up as the mushroom matures to become broadly conical to convex, although it retains a point at its center. The edges of the cap are smooth but irregular to lobed. The hollow stipe is grooved, often in a slightly twisted or spiral manner, and easily splits apart. You usually find that the base of the stipe is white, although how much of the stipe is white varies. The most useful feature of this mushroom for identification is that it discolors black. This bruising reaction is slow but strong. Older specimens are often blackened on their edges and at the center of the stipe, although some can turn almost completely black. Very few closely related species exhibit this characteristic, so it is useful in positively identifying the Witch’s Hat. conica belongs to a group of mushrooms known as the Waxy Caps (Hygrophoraceae). Like the other members of this group, its gills have the consistency of soft wax when rubbed between the fingers. The gills are white to yellowish in color and give a white spore print.
Its aesthetic aspects aside, this is an interesting species that merits further study. As it is currently described, H. conica is found in North America, South America, Asia, and Europe. A DNA study would go a long way toward determining whether or not these groups truly represent a single species. We also are not exactly sure what role H. conica plays in the environment. It is difficult to grow in the laboratory, so it is apparent that it requires something special from its environment. What exactly this is and how the Witch’s Hat receives it needs to be investigated further. You can find the Witch’s Hat across North America fruiting on the ground under hardwoods and conifers from early summer through fall. Hygrocybe conica is placed in the phylum Basidiomycota, class Agaricomycetes, order Agaricales, and family Hygrophoraceae (Waxy Caps).