Elf Cups

Several small, bright red cup-shaped fungi on a green, mossy log.
Sarcoscypha austriaca: Elf cups

December. Down in the deep wood by the coppiced hazel, the elves have left their dishes to dry in the sun. A scatter of scarlet bowls and cups, scooped and smooth, rest among the leaf litter. Some cradling a residue of morning dew. Some tipped sideways, draining. The remnants of a midwinter revelry.

Elf cups, elf caps, fairy baths, moss cups. Irregular, and up to 4cm in diameter, the bright, leathery disks populate the woodland floor through the dark winter days. Spores are released with a tiny, audible ‘puff’ and each spore glistens with an oily droplet at either end, presumably to aid propulsion. Culinary value ranges from ‘considered inedible’[i] to ‘some controversy as to whether this mushroom can be eaten raw so play it safe and always cook them’.[ii] Distinct and preternatural, they are difficult to forget.

Now, in March, I find myself searching for them, curious to see what, if anything, remains. For weeks, the vivid cluster dominated the bend by the brook. It shone out, under the thick cloud, a bright reminder of Yuletide festivities. Today, it’s a while before my eye catches the tattered scraps. Gliding slugs and nibbling rodents have frilled the edges. Glory gone, they look nothing so much as offcuts dropped by a hasty shoemaker, their dark red topsides and browning undersides curling into the leaf litter.

Up by the road, Daffodils nod in waves of cream and yellow, and thin blue stars of Squills fleck the bank. The birds sing louder and longer these days, and more flowers are creeping in - a single faded purple Pulmonaria here, a few golden Celandine there. By the time the pink wheels of Red Campion turn up the scarlet cups will be long gone. Locked in the earth for their summer slumber, Sarcoscypha austriaca waits patiently for damp days and cold nights. Appearing just in time for the turning of the year, and the itinerant elves passing through.

[i] Woodland Trust, (2024), Scarlet elf cup. Available at: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/fungi-and-lichens/scarlet-elf-cup/. Accessed: 12/03/2024

[ii] Wildfood UK, (2024), Scarlet elfcup. Available at: https://www.wildfooduk.com/mushroom-guide/scarlet-elfcup/. Accessed: 12/03/2024

Pale blue star-shaped flowers among browning leaflitter.
Genus Scilla: Squills