May 2017 - Scarlet Elf Cup Fungus

Fruiting bodies of the Scarlet Elf Cup, Earlham Park

Autumn is the time of year to see most species of fungi, in the form of their fruiting bodies (e.g. toadstools). However, certain species can be seen at other times of year, such as the Scarlet Elf Cup and related Ruby Elf Cup, both producing fruiting bodies during winter and spring. The only way to distinguish these two species is with a microscope, so for purposes of this article I will call the fungus shown here, photographed in Earlham woods, Scarlet Elf Cup.

Scarlet Elf Cups are about 1 to 4 cm across, and are shaped like a cup; they are, as their name would suggest, scarlet, fading with age to a more orange colour. They have paler undersides, covered with soft downy hairs. They are attached by a short stalk to the decaying sticks and branches of particularly hawthorn, beech, hazel, willow and elm, which are to be found in leaf litter and moss. They like damp conditions in woodland, and can also be found on the banks of ditches and streams. Apparently, they characteristically make a tiny puffing sound when they release their spores into the air.

They are generally not considered poisonous, and certainly not by the rodents and slugs which love to eat them. Although some foragers use them for human consumption, and they reportedly do well in stews and for frying, there does seem to be some discrepancy in the literature as to their edibility. Because they are such a lovely colour, they used to be used with moss and leaves, in table decorations. They have also been used medically by the Oneida Indians in the USA; after drying and grinding down the fruiting bodies, the resulting material used to be placed under bandages, made of soft-tanned deer skin, to stop bleeding; and in the same way, this material used to be placed on the navels of new born babies to promote healing.

Alternative names for this colourful fungus are red cups, red caps, moss cups, fairies' baths.

Look out for Bluebells this month. English Bluebells have a distinctive one sided droop and are perfumed. The invader, the Spanish Bluebell, has upright stems, and no scent.

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