Scarlet Elfcups or Moss Cups and some Irish mycological history

I had occasion to sweep down through my last several years of google photos and the passing of every photographic year is dead easy to spot, regular as clockwork every winter/start of spring stands out because I take a load of photographs of scarlet elfcups, presumably not quite in the same wildly over enthused state as the first year I really started to pay attention to them but not too far off. Their incredible vivid colour, usually nestled in fabulously lush moss or lichen in truly pictuesque alcoves of curled dead branch or stump is a real boost that time of year. In truth I can’t tell whether I take pictures of scarlet or ruby elfcups around here, they are different at a microscopic level but not to my eye but since the scarlet is, I believe, the more common I’ll just assume that’s what they are. Both have the same qualities anyway.

Let’s start with the basics…

Scientific NameSarcoscypha coccinea
Seasonlate Winter to late Spring.
Where to findOn or underneath dead hardwood, very common with hazel. I’ve found them forlorn looking in mud tracks too, once your eye spots one you’ll start to see them everywhere.
CapReally proper cups, hence the name, tend to grow in clusters. They are almost shiny smooth and bright red inside, and a kind of cream to straw white with tiny tufted hairs outside. They flatten out as they get older. They are quite think and tear easily.
Undersidea kind of cream to straw white with tiny tufted hairs outside, no visible pores, gills or teeth. The red from the inside can make the outside look pinkish in certain light or photos.
Stemsame pale coloured stem, gradually becomes less visible as the cap grows, looks more integrated rather than separate
Spores White (but I didn’t do a spore print so I don’t have a photo) and they come from the top of the fungus. Breath on them, see what happens 🙂
EdibilityYes, and this surprised me this year I had previously read they were in the best avoided category but I have seen several sites talk about eating them and getting foraging groups to too. As with all mushrooms you have never tried before only try a tiny amount of *cooked* mushroom if you do, you don’t know if they disagree with your own body chemistry. They are easy for beginners to identify and the ruby or scarlet types are both edible. I have seen them in the “not worth it for taste” category a few times, I suspect it may be more because they are a bit tough, and can be hard to clean. (but you can wash them) The texture is definitely not the same as a field mushroom but I liked the little taste I took and cooked, for scientific purposes. There was an enormous patch of them so I don’t believe I was doing any harm. I have also seen sites talk about eating them raw with wild garlic and oh a chopped wild garlic and scarlet elf cup salad would have the most gorgeous colour. I like to play it safe and cook them though and my books agree with me. They do not stay fresh long.

I think you’ll agree that once you spot them they’re sort of hard to miss? I have about fifty threads of things I want to follow to do with Irish forestry, mycology, history, language and nature poetry and they all started to jump up and down for attention while I was thinking about this one. I’m going to have to throttle the language and nature poetry one back for another day , it’s already becoming incredibly large in the planning stage but I can fit in this little bit here. I came across a gorgeous little series called Spreading the Words, a series about the histories of Irish words written by Sharon Arbuthnot and Máire Ní Mhaonaigh and produced in association with the book A History of Ireland in 100 Words and the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language, which I refer to a lot. I was absolutely delighted with myself when I discovered “Fás aon oíche” – One night’s growth, an Irish name describing, it is thought, the common field mushroom which indeed grows quickly. I’ve been trying for some time to see if I can find medieval or at least old language references to different mushrooms. In this short piece F.C. Hassel is quoted in the context of saying that there seems to be little evidence of much variety of fungi being eaten in Ireland. I had to chase that down and came across an article The Early Irish Mycologuists 1726 – 1900 in the Irish Naturalists’ Journal Vol 12 No. 5. As part of chasing that down I came across the gloriously named Caleb Threlkeld and his Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum Alphabetice Dispositarum.  Be still my little nerdy heart, this thing is fantastic. There are all sorts of plants and some places where he knew they could be found in Ireland at the time, so far in Dublin and Down mostly, and the Irish names (albeit mangled somewhat) given to some of them. Absolute gold. Unfortunately the fungus section is very small (just 16) and very lacking in a) Irish names and b) nice easy to figure out ways to line them up with their modern scientific names.

I will come back to my new friend Caleb soon, I have more research to do, but I thought I would at least see if I could find our friend the elf cup in the ones he did mention.

FUNGUS ARBOREUS ACETABULI MODO CAVUS Coccineus marginibus pilofis. Peziza acetabuliformis Coccinea marginibus pilofis. Found on rotten Oaks in Kilwarlin nears Hilsborough; this is not above half an Inch over, all Scarlet with black stiff hairs on the Brim”

Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum Alphabetice Dispositarum.  I used a source on google books

Aha I thought, I recognise Peziza and Coccineus from previous study of scarlet elfcups (Sarcoscypha coccinea in the Pezizales Order), it says cava, that’s good for a cup, right? This looks promising, oh and look, scarlet, right there! But… stiff black hairs? ….. What?

Allow me to introduce you to Scutellinia scutellata, also, I am told, known as the eyelash cup, the Molly eye-winker, the scarlet elf cap, the eyelash fungus or the eyelash pixie cup, a picture taken by Dan Molter (shroomydan), used on Mushroom Observer and wikipedia, (Hopefully correctly used here under CC BY-SA 3.0 ) They can be found in Europe. I have never found one yet.

So yeah. No.

I’m currently having fun trying to track down the lichen and fungi illustrations drawn by John Templeton before his death in 1825 and to find more Irish names for fungi, but those are stories for another day…

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