Pink, purple, blue and yellow: many waxcap species burst into colourful glory after the first cold snap of autumn. October is the best time to spot these magnificent mushrooms in gardens, churchyards and grasslands. The pink ballerina (Hygrocybe calyptriformis) waxcap, pictured, is one of the most distinctive-looking species.

Waxcaps are sometimes described as the 'orchids' of the fungi world because of their bright and varied colouration. But they are also excellent habitat indicators, says Dr Trevor Dines, a botanical specialist at Plantlife charity. This peculiar fungus is the very rare and aptly named violet coral waxcap (Clavaria zollingeri).

The waxcap group of fungi are especially abundant in undisturbed grasslands: in the best sites, up to 30 species may grow within a one-hectare area. Fungi decline has been linked to the loss of semi-natural grasslands since the introduction of modern agricultural practices after the Second World War.

“Places to look [for waxcaps] would be churchyards and gardens,” says Dr Gareth Griffith, senior lecturer and mycologist at Aberystwyth University. Snowy waxcaps (Hygrocybe virginea), pictured, are among the most common species of the fungi.

The UK is home to around 50 species of waxcaps. Wales, is “internationally important” for waxcaps thanks to its abundant grassland habitats, says Dr Griffith. Unlike many fungi, waxcaps have a long fruiting season. Autumn is the peak time for fruiting bodies to emerge, particularly in mild, wet weather following a short cold period. These fruits can remain until November.

The fruiting body is only a small part of the fungus, most of which grows underground. Dr Dines explains that the visible mushroom is like “the apple on the apple tree”. One distinctive feature of waxcaps is their gills, which are pale, “chunky and quite well spaced” (at least 1mm apart), says Dr Griffith, like those on this crimson waxcap (Hygrocybe punicea), which has had its pigment washed out in rain.

Fungi belong to their own kingdom; they are neither plants nor animals. However, the hugely diverse organisms can be considered closer to animals than plants. The blackening waxcap (Hygrocybe conica), pictured, is another relatively common species which can be identified by its conical cap shape. This species changes colour with age, from orange to finally black.

Charities such as Plantlife want to encourage people to appreciate fungi more by looking for them in the wild. Although the waxcaps look attractive, almost all of them are inedible and as some fungi are poisonous you should not eat any without the advice of an experienced guide.

Top image: Pink ballerina fungus (credit: Ray Woods / Plantlife)

Discover more fungi and plant species on the Plantlife website.

Explore the world of fungi with the British Mycological Society.