Just as the Scarlet waxcaps are the jewels of the autumn meadows so the Elfcups are the jewels of the wet winter woodlands. Though they’re tiny (no more than 7cm across) and frequently half buried in moss, their eye-catching bright red colour makes them easy to spot in the damp shady places where they live on dead wood, particularly beech, hazel, hawthorn, willow and elm.
Two Elfcups can be found in Britain – the Scarlet Elfcup (Sarcoscypha austriaca) and the Ruby Elfcup (Sarcoscypha coccinea). They are so similar in outward appearance that a microscope is required to distinguish between them and, even then, it’s not easy. With a goblet-shaped cup and short stem when young, which flattens into a cup shape as they mature, it’s not difficult to see where they got the name Elfcup, nor their other common name of Fairies’ Baths.
In fact, that ‘bath’ is where the spores can be found. These fungi don’t drop their spores from gills like regular mushrooms; instead, they fire spores from structures called asci, a bit like a cannon fires cannon balls and, apparently, they make a tiny puffing sound when that happens. So, listen closely next time you see them.