Scarlet elf cup – Identification, edibility, distribution

Sarcocypha coccinea and Sarcoscypha austriaca

Both these species are variously referred to as scarlet or crimson elf cups. They are virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye and equally edible.

elf cups

  • Edibility – 3/5 – Some guide books list them as inedible, perhaps because of their lack of succulence, but I rate them highly and am yet to encounter anyone who has had problems eating them.
  • Identification – 5/5 – Crimson red, young specimens goblet shaped, stem becoming less noticeable with age so becoming cup-shaped, 1-5cm diameter, pale on the outside, thin fleshed
  • Distribution – 3/5 – Can be found in large numbers where established
  • Season – January to April – flushing after a thaw
  • Habitat – Fairly common in humus rich, damp, deciduous woods with plenty of fallen wood, from which they grow. They have a preference for moss-covered ash, willow and elm, though identification of host trees can be tricky as they are usually in an advanced state of decay. They seem more common in the West and near the sea. I suspect this is to do with exposure to prevailing winds, which creates more windfall.

These spectacular little fungi fall into the category of almost too pretty to pick. I find lots in a snowdrop and ramson-filled wood by the sea and the contrast of the red elf cups, white flowers and vibrant green moss makes it a very special place in February. I admired them for years without really bothering to try eating them – their thin red flesh put me in mind of chamois leather and didn’t seem to offer too much promise of flavour. So when a keen wild food chef I know started tweeting pictures of dishes using them and raving about them generally, I decided it was time to give them a go. Foraging is full of pleasant surprises, and elf cups are one of its best.

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Cooking elf cups in the woods

They have a subtle, earthy flavour with perhaps a hint of beetroot. Though the texture isn’t typical of mushrooms, they do cook well – either frying or in stews seems best.

They lend themselves so well to holding things, that I can’t resist filling them with other woodland gifts for some on-the-hoof raw hedgerow munching. I don’t usually recommend eating wild fungi raw, but haven’t encountered any problems with elf cups or young velvet shank (which taste like mushroom toffee!). If you do give it a go, try a little bit the first time. Early few-flowered garlic shoots, baby velvet shank, pink purslane and cep-infused lichen have all worked well and look, frankly, stunning.

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Scarlet elf cup with baby velvet shank and few-flowered garlic shoots

Scarlet elf cups are related to the equally attractive orange peel fungus which appears in the autumn usually on disturbed ground, new path edges etc. They look exactly as their name suggests, and I regularly pounce on actual orange peel by mistake!

Orange peel fungus - edible, but not as tasty as oranges

Orange peel fungus – edible, but not as tasty as oranges

Elf cups can be found in large numbers in certain places when they are flushing, but even then I urge people to pick these beautiful fungi with restraint and leave plenty to continue to do their important work decomposing wood and for others to enjoy. Read more about responsible mushroom picking here.

Elf cup sushi, with velvet shank and wild herbs

Elf cup sushi, with velvet shank, reindeer moss, cep powder and wild herbs

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8 Comments

  • Matthew says:

    Those elf cup sushi ought to be on the menu at Noma! Brilliant. I must have a look through your articles and see if there’s anything else the mushroom books label “inedible” that are actually worth trying.

    • Mark says:

      Thanks Matthew. Have a look at the clouded agaric entry – they aren’t usually recommended but I have no problems with them. Lots more to come, bu never enough time!

  • 20/05/2015 identified at Brandon Marsh Warwickshire scarlet elf cup fungi brilliant!!!

  • identified at brandon marsh warwickshire scarlet elf cup fungi brilliant1

  • Amy says:

    Thank you for this article!!! I found some of these a few days ago but couldn’t find them in my edible wild mushrooms book so I assumed they were poisonous! I’m gonna head back out to the woods in a few and get some now thanks to your article!

  • Jenny says:

    They ARE too pretty to pick and you’re ignoring the issues of other life forms that depend on the fungi you are destroying, and the beautiful sight that you are denying to other people who might want to view these. Basically it’s selfish and unnecessary. Please stop it. There’s little enough nature left as it is.

    • mark says:

      Hi Jenny,
      I certainly don’t ignore issues around the complexity of nature. I’m more aware than most self-proclaimed “nature-lovers” of the fact that, until we learn to interact with nature in meaningful ways, rather than ring fencing it, it will always be at risk.

      Whenever I am challenged on this sort of thing, I ask the person asking to serious look at their own diet and its hidden consequences… monocultures, food miles, cataclysm-based farming practices… ALL (and I mean ALL) food has consequences elsewhere in the food chain. Some people like to pretend they are not a part of nature, and shield themselves from the wider impact of their diet.

      If you can let me know of any of “the issues of other life form that depend on the fungi” you claim I am “destroying”, then please share and I will alter my information. Please stick to science-based evidence if possible. I would draw your attention to the several scientific studies in the following link that shows no relationship between harvesting edible mushrooms and the health of the mycelium from which they grow.
      Recommended reading:
      What you are suggesting is rather like asking me to stop picking crab apples from my local hedgerow, because you like looking at them and have some vague (but unspecified) notion, that other things might eat them.
      Mark

  • Steve says:

    If I could “like” Marks response to Jenny’s comment I would!

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