On Thursday I was helping to clear windblown trees from the pathway around Horrocks Flash on the Wigan Flashes on a volunteer work party as part of my placement with the Carbon Landscapes Partnership.
Horrocks Flash (a flash is a lake that formed in a hollow after subsidence – in this case caused by coal mining) is surrounded by wet woodland and is an area that I had never visited before.
As we walked the pathway and cleared the fallen trees we noticed scarlet elfcups on the dead branches and twigs and the leaf litter on the woodland floor almost everywhere we looked. When I went to use the natural facilities I could barely take a step without treading on them.
I’d seen scarlet elfcups in local woodlands and on the Wigan Flashes, but never in such density or high numbers. The Project Officer and Assistant Project Officer agreed there were more than in past years. So I decided to do some research to see if I could find an explanation for this remarkable occurrence.
I found out that scarlet elfcups (Sarcoscypha austriaca) are ‘fairly widespread but uncommon in Britain and Ireland’. Sarcoscypha comes from the Greek skyphos ‘drinking bowl’ and austriaca means ‘from Austria’. Their common names ‘scarlet elf cap, scarlet cup, red cup, moss cups, and fairies’ baths’ originate from the widespread European belief that elves and fairies drink from and bathe in them.
They are sacrophytic fungi (from the Latin sapro ‘detritus’ and phage ‘a thing that devours’) which means they gain their nutrition by processing dead matter. The scarlet cup or bowl shaped caps are their fruiting bodies and their ‘barely discernible’ stems attach to leaf litter and dead and decaying wood (particularly willow, alder, hazel, maple, and elm). They usually appear in winter and in early spring and favour ‘areas with high rainfall’ – damp woodland floor, ditches and stream banks.
Here I found clues to the climatic and ecological conditions scarlet elf cups grow best in. Looking further I discovered that for ‘optimal growth’ sacrophytic fungi require the ‘presence of water’, the ‘presence of oxygen’, ‘neutral-acidic pH’ (under 7), and ‘low-medium temperature’ (between 1°C and 35°C).
I conjecture the mildness of this winter, with only a few cold snaps, and the heavy rainfall, are the main causes of such large numbers of scarlet elfcups in this wet woodland, where water and oxygen, and the types of wood they favour are clearly present (the pH of the soil would require testing).
Their appearance in high numbers vividly marks a mild and wet winter brought about by climate change. On a symbolic level their vibrant red bowls speak of both the enchantment and danger of Elfland/Faerieland and its inhabitants, who are renowned for their abilities to curse and bless. Climate change brings curses to some species and blessings to others.
If this is the year of the scarlet elf cup what does this signify for us, for our wet woodlands, for our relationship with the thisworldly and otherworldy persons with whom we share them?
Will these red cups
bring good or bad luck?
‘Scarlet Elfcup’, The Woodland Trust, https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/fungi-and-lichens/scarlet-elf-cup/
‘Sarcoscypha austriaca’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarcoscypha_austriaca
‘Sacrotrophic nutrition’, Wikipdia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saprotrophic_nutrition