This apparently uncommon, but widespread, fungus adds a touch of colour to the winter woodland floor. But is that really ‘uncommon’ or just not often recorded (see the note at the end of this post).
Elfcups grow on dead sticks in damp woodland. Their job is breaking down the wood to release nutrients back into the soil.
These scarlet fruiting bodies are small – 2-5 cm across and 1-3 cm tall, on a short thin stalk that is often buried in moss attached to the stick.
While these fungi are not poisonous, they are considered inedible – not much in the way of taste or texture, although they have been used as salad decoration. The bright red colour has led to folklore uses to stop bleeding – and placing under bandages and on the navels of newborns to promote healing. Don’t try this at home – it hasn’t been scientifically proven!
They are said to be popular delicacy enjoyed by rodents and slugs.
But there is a complication
Actually, there are two species – scarlet elfcup and ruby elfcup which are difficult to distinguish even with a microscope, so how should you record them? This is where the scientific name comes in handy. They are Sarcoscypha austriaca and Sarcoscypha coccinea respectively so when inputting your records, you record them as Sarcoscypha fungus. More information here
They shouldn’t be confused with orange peel fungus Aleuria aurantia which is paler (orange rather than scarlet) and larger, and grows on the soil, not on bits of wood.
An excellent book, if you want to know more about fungi in general, is Fascinated by Fungi, written by Pat O’Reilly.