Book Review

Waxcap Mushrooms of Eastern North America

By Alan E. Bessette, William C. Roody, Walter E. Sturgeon, and Arleen R. Bessett
2012 / ISBN 978-0-8156-3268-9 / 179 pp.
Syracuse University Press
$95.00 (cloth)

Yes, another Bessette book—this time on the waxcaps or members of the genus Hygrophorus in the broad sense. This one will appear immediately familiar to those of you who have used the Bessettes’ other focused guides on boletes and the genus LactariusNorth American Boletes (with Bill Roody) and Milk Mushrooms of North America (with David Harris). The innards also are very similar to those of the earlier works, but not entirely.

First the similarities. The book is very attractive in appearance and is of high quality (good binding, few typos), but available only in way over-priced hardback, a practice that I wish Syracuse Press would change so that these useful books could get into the hands of more mushroomers right away. The introductory matter is quite brief—a mere eight pages covering a definition of waxcaps, a review of the North American mycologists who have contributed to our knowledge of these often showy mushrooms, the key macroscopic characters of mushrooms in Hygrocybe and Hygrophorus (the two waxcap genera recognized in the book), the edibility of waxcaps, and a short summary of some other mushrooms that could be mistaken for waxcaps. The species descriptions (covering 106 species and varieties by my count) follow a standard format—scientific name with authority; short list of selected synonyms; common name; cap, gill, and stalk features; selected microscopic features, occurrence (habit, habitat, distribution, season, and commonness); edibility; and miscellaneous observations (comments). The descriptions are arranged by the two genera, first Hygrocybe and then Hygrophorus, and then alphabetically within each genus. As usual, the photographs are grouped together (another practice that I wish the Press would discontinue) and they follow the descriptions section. The photos, often more than one per species, are arranged by Hygrocybe, Hygrocybe chameleons (with no explanation of why that term is used and how changeable a species needed to be to warrant inclusion in the category), and Hygrophorus. Within each of these three groups, the species are organized by general coloration to facilitate comparison of similar species. As usual for Bessette books, the photographs are, with few exceptions, of very good to excellent quality. Photographs of two unidentified species, a glossary, resource/reading list, common names index, scientific names index, and list of photo credits complete the book.

I noted three major differences from the two comparable books mentioned above. First, this one covers only eastern North America, not the whole continent. Second, the photos are admirably larger (mostly about 13 x 9 cm). Kudos to the Press for that. Third, and rather surprisingly, there are no keys and, in fact, really no indication of how the authors intend the book to be used (presumably mostly in picture-matching mode or as a reference once a specimen has been keyed out elsewhere). While I don’t believe that all mushroom guides need keys, one like this with a narrow taxonomic focus and that purports to contain pretty much every species one is likely to find, does need them.

Another major thing I think should have been included is a discussion of the evolving taxonomy of these mushrooms. Using only the genera Hygrocybe and Hygrophorus is reasonable, given the intended audience (mostly amateurs without access to tools such as microscopes). However, it would have been exceedingly helpful to give readers a preview of where things are headed in this DNA-sequence-heavy period of taxonomic activity. For instance, descriptions of the other genera that contain, or will contain, many of the species in this book—such as Camarophyllus, Cuphophyllus, Gliophorus, Humidicutis, and Hygrotrama—should have been included. In cases where the transfers have already been made or are likely to be made in the near future, those names could have been included in the Observations sections of the species in question.

Another, less obvious, difference from many previous Bessette books is that the comments in many of the Observations sections are more substantial and generally more useful. Some, however, still are much too skimpy. For instance, the Observations for Hygrophorus tennesseensis fail to even mention the exceedingly similar-looking, H. bakerensis (the photos on page 147 show them to be pretty much dead ringers), much less offer a critical comparison of the two (which, it has been suggested, might be conspecific).

The book contains occasional minor errors such as giving C.H. Kauffman’s first name as Charles (it was Calvin) and including the no longer necessary :Fries in many of the authorities. Although some of the species are unfamiliar to me and I did only a cursory check, I didn’t notice any obvious errors in identifying the photos. However, two of them did cause me to raise an eyebrow—Hygrocybe squamulosa (A) looks awfully different from the (B) and (C) photos of the species and the cover photo strikes me more as Hygrocybe miniata than H. coccinea (the interior documentary photo for H. coccinea is of the same collection). Although probably of little importance to most users, more significant errors occurred in the authors’ attempts to transfer a large number of species from Hygrophorus to Hygrocybe. In order to be published validly, new combinations (transfers) must include reference to the original name given to the fungus and where its original description was published. This was not done and so none of the new names are valid. In addition, had they been published validly, about half of them would have been superfluous as the transfers have already been made by others (in some cases, after the manuscript for this book had been submitted).

If you live in the East, want to identify most of the mushrooms you find or have a special fondness for waxcaps, and can afford the steep price, you should get this book. For those in the West, it will be harder to justify the expense, but I still recommend it as many of the species extend to our part of the continent. If you’re thinking about waiting for the paperback edition, don’t hold your breath. It took 10 years for Syracuse Press to release the paperback version of North American Boletes.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in Fungi