Monday, 8 April 2013

Ben and Shirley’s Little Kingdom

…Tales from the Woodland Ranger…

If you go into to the woods today, you might not see any elves drinking tea or fairies flying round but you might just see some scarlet elf cups.  These bright red fungi are easy to see and sometimes look far too bright at this time of year and possibly thought of as litter.

A Scarlet Elf cup growing on dead wood on the floor of a Cumbrian woodland.  Photo: Nigel Gilligan.

Back in February Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre (CBDC) asked their facebook followers to be on the lookout for these distinctive fungi around Cumbrian woodlands and to report back any sightings.

In the National Trust woodlands around Windermere and Grasmere we came across quite a few and duly sent our reports in.

But the story didn’t end there, because there are two very similar looking types of scarlet elf cup which can only be distinguished by expert, microscopic analysis!  So one lucky elf cup travelled first class, snug in bubble-wrap, to Scotland for a much, much closer look.

What you see below are very close up images of hair-like structures called paraphyses which give the white furry look to the underside of the cups.  The paraphyses are connected to a layer of tissue called the hymenium.  On the hymenium are also asci, which produce the spores to help the scarlet elf cups to multiply around the woodlands. 

Images of Sarcoscypha austriaca by Peter Wilberforce

Here’s how Peter, the expert made these wonderful images:

"To get the photos of the paraphyses, asci and spores I usually use a simple "squash" of a minute part of the hymenium.  I boil a small amount of material and then mount in water. The hairs are collected by gently scraping the outside of the cup.  These are then mounted in water and viewed under Normarski contrast lighting.  The photos are taken using a Nikon Coolpix 995 digital camera held over the phototube with a x10 wide-field eyepiece in place”

Peter describes the hairs as having the appearance of "Shirley Temple's mop of golden curls"!

A lovely close up image of scarlet elf fungi. Photo: John Malley.

But if you don’t have Peter to explain this to you, then ask the wise old elf sitting under the bright red fungi, and join him for a spot of tea.

Ben Knipe
Woodland Ranger