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Sarcoscypha austriaca (Scarlet Elfcup)

The story of the two Sarcoscypha species (S. austriaca and S. coccinea) is probably well known to many of you, but it can always bear retelling, not least to try and inspire extra effort in establishing whether a new chapter is required. 

Up until the early 1980s, all Sarcoscypha collections in the UK were named S. coccinea. In 1984, Baral recognised 5 taxa within S. coccinea of which only S. coccinea and S. austriaca are currently recognised as British. In order to establish how many of the older collections could actually be assigned to S. austriaca, the collections held by Kew, Edinburgh and IMI were examined. In the Mycologist (9.1), Butterfill and Spooner note that 76 were referred to S. coccinea and 32 to S. austriaca. Since that time, the balance of species recorded has shifted, with S. austriaca now the more commonly recorded of the two. For example, records on the FRDBI suggest that only 8 recent collections of S. coccinea have been made in Scotland with 26 of S. austriaca.

I was recently in conversation with David Clarke of the Carlisle Natural History Society the members of which are undertaking an informal survey of the two Sarcoscypha species this winter. Their earliest findings are that both species are occurring in equal numbers - this might change as they go along of course. Still, it made me think that we should have a look out for them as well - maybe the balance is changing again! If you find one and would like it checked, email me on liz@marmycology.co.uk - I will happily do a microscope check.

Brian Spooner and Peter Roberts, in their New Naturalist book 'Fungi', use the word 'flamboyant' to describe these cup fungi and that pretty much says it all. Brightly coloured, showy fungi, their relatively large size (up to 6cm across) and their appearance early in the year makes them easy to spot. A report of one cup at 10cm was claimed in Field Mycologist 8.1 - if anybody can beat that it would be fun to hear about!

The inner, fertile surface of the cup is a wonderful scarlet colour whilst the outer surface is much paler and covered with a white bloom consisting of tiny hairs. The cup is usually on a short stalk, growing out of fallen deadwood. Interestingly there are reports of a rarely recorded white coloured form (mentioned by Gill Butterfill and Brian Spooner in their article in Mycologist 9.1 1995, as being found at Glamis [18XX] - recorded as Peziza insolita) and also the bright yellow S. austriaca var. lutea. This latter was reported from North Wales in 2007 (Field Mycology 8.1) and North Somerset in 2008 (Field Mycology 9.2).

Whilst easy to get to genus, the two species are indistinguishable in the field. Once under the microscope they can quickly be sorted out by looking at the hairs on the outside of the cup. S. austriaca (see photo above) has hairs that are almost corkscrewed in appearance whereas in S. coccinea they are straight or gently curved at most. There are also differences in the paraphyses and spore width and shape but these are less obvious.

Members of the genus Sarcoscypha are all ascomycetes or 'spore shooters'. The spores are shot into the air at maturity from inside a special cell called an ascus. More information about some of these terms and fungal lifestyles.


Its appearance in the winter months is one of the features that focus the search for these fungi. S. austriaca is known from January, February, March and April in Scotland. S. coccinea from January, February, April, May with one record from November. 


Sarcoscypha is a genus of wood rotting species generally found in sheltered woodlands on damp, broadleaf, woody litter. It is not possible to say whether there is any host preference as so many of the records do not specify the host species but alder, hazel, willow, beech, cherry and elm have all been cited in Scotland. The wood is usually damp, mossy and fallen onto the forest floor.


Both species are more commonly recorded in England, Wales and Northern Ireland than in Scotland but the pattern of a recent increase in S. austriaca at the apparent expense of S. coccinea is found in all countries.

Please remember to submit your records to your local recording group or via the Scottish Fungi online recording form.

Liz Holden February 2013
Sarcoscypha austriaca
Sarcoscypha austriaca (Scarlet Elfcup)

Sarcoscypha austriaca typical habitat of damp broadleaf woody litter
Sarcoscypha austriaca (Scarlet Elfcup)  in typical damp, mossy, broadleaf litter habitat

Sarcoscypha austriaca (Scarlet Elfcup). The curly hairs on the outside of the cup require a microscope to see and are an important distinguishing feature.



The National Biodiversity Network Gateway records from FRDBI andHBRG  datasets are shown on the above map (see terms and conditions at http://data.nbn.org.uk). Data providers and the NBN Trust bear no responsibility for any further analysis or interpretation of the information in the map.

Sarcoscypha austriaca