midsummer eve, Edward Robert Hughes 1909Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for June 2005

Faery cups, in honor of a midsummer night's dream at the summer solstice

--by Rebecca Curland and Tom Volk

Please click TomVolkFungi.net for the rest of Tom Volk's pages on fungi

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, Blake 1785

The 22nd of June is the summer solstice. In the northern heisphere, it is the shortest night of the year. It is a magical night, when the veil between the mundane world and the magical realm thins, and the little people emerge to celebrate the shortest night of the year. Some traditions believe that to prevent faery mischief, offerings of milk, honey, cakes, or sweet incense should be left out as offerings to appease the wee folk. If you are out roaming the woods on midsummer's eve, you might be lucky enough to stumble upon a group of faeries engaged in a celebration. You may even catch a glimpse of the faeries enjoying magical libations from faery cup fungi. We mere mortals have many spellings-- you may see fairys, faeries, faerys, or even fariis if you look closely enough.

Out of this wood do not desire to go:
Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.
I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I'll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.

--Titania, Queen of the faeries. Act 3, Scene I.
A Midsummer Night's Dream. William Shakespeare.

The cup fungi are ascomycetes that are grouped within the class Discomycetes, order Pezizales. These fungi produce fruiting structures called apothecia, bowl or cup shaped structures with open tops and a hymenial lining (rows of asci that contain the spores). The asci of the Pezizales are operculate; they have a hinged lid that opens to disperse the spores. Most of the Pezizales are saprophytic, and can be found growing in soil, leaf litter, or on decaying wood.

There are several species of cup fungi from which faeries might sip. Let's look at a few of them.

Microstoma floccosum, the pink fringed faery cupMicrostoma floccosum, the pink fringed faery cup, is found in cute little clusters on the sides of rather small diameter twigs. Occasionally they are found singly, but they rather like to group together gregariously. Some years it is very abundant, and some years you never even see one. They're really fun to find, since they're so beautiful, with their pink insides and the abundance of fuzzy white hairs on the outside. Like the other cup fungi, their ascospores (sexual spores formed by meiosis and free cell formation) are borne inside of cylindrical-shaped asci that line the upper pink surface of the fruiting bodies. These ascospores are forcibly shot away from the fruiting body, in order to spread the spores to new habitats.

Like most fungi, the Latin name tells you a great deal about the fungus: Microstoma means "small mouth," while floccosum refers to the "floccules" (small flocks, like a flocked Christmas tree) of white fuzzy hairs covering the fruiting bodies. (Isn't Latin fun?) The fruiting bodies themselves are about 5 mm across the top and perhaps 15 mm from the attachment point to the top of the cup. These lovely fruiting bodies certainly look like small goblets or something else faeries might use in their wine and tea parties on a midsummer night. Why not join them?

Aleuria aurantia, the orange fairy cup or orange peel fungusAleuria aurantia is also known as the orange fairy cup or the orange peel fungi. I remember the first time I saw this species, scattered amongst the small rocks of a forest trail-- mentally scolding the hiker who discarded his orange peels right there on the trail. I soon forgave the potential offender when I realized it was the orange peel fungus. The inner ascus-bearing surface of the cup is bright orange, and it outer surface is a pale whitish orange. Again, the ascospores are borne within the asci on the upper surface. If you're careful, you can gently blow over the surface of the fruiting body, like you blow over the top of a coke bottle or a Kentucky jug-- then you might be able to see the puff of ascospores as they are released into the air currents. The orange fairy cup can be observed growing in soil matter and along trails and other hard packed places from May to August (January in California), and its range includes most of North America. The picture to the right was taken among the redwoods in California. They are very variable in size, from 2mm across to 60mm across. If you can find enough biomass, Aleuria aurantia is edible and supposedly tasty when prepared, but you may want to thank the faeries with a small offering after collecting some of their orange cups, lest they become upset and play a nasty faery trick on you.

Sarcoscypha occidentalis, the scarlet Pixie cupSarcoscypha occidentalis, the scarlet Pixie cup is found growing on small diameter twigs along trails all throughout the summer. Sometimes it looks like they are growing directly from the ground, but if you dig down under the fruiting bodies you will always find a piece of wood. It's probably more "convenient" for the fungus to grow from buried wood, since that wood will remain moister than wood at the soil surface. Sarco means "flesh," while scypha means cup. the specific epithet occidentalis means "of the west." Thus this fungus could be the "flesh cup of the west." Sounds wicked doesn't it?

In any case, its close relative, Sarcoscypha coccinea and other closely related species are found in very early spring, usually on maple twigs, and is usually at least twice as large as S. occidentalis. There are some spore size differences as well. Interestingly, the orange color in the cup is mostly restricted to paraphyses, which are sterile cells between the asci. Take a look in your microscope.

Geopyxis carbonaria, the pixie cup The pixie cup (Geopyxis carbonaria) has an interesting Latin name that tells you practically all you need to know about it. "Geo" means earth, and "pyxis" means pixies. The specific epithet "carbonarius" derives from the fact that the fungus grows on burnt soil and charred wood. In fact, G. carbonaria is often the most abundant fungus to emerge after a forest fire, especially in western North America. G. carbonaria ranges in color from whitish brown to ochre to salmon, and the margin of its cups bear fine teeth. Pixie cups can be spotted from March through September across the northern United States and Canada. The elf cup, Tarzetta cupularis looks extremely similar to G. carbonaria. T. cupularis thrives in burnt soil and mosses of coniferous forests. It can be distinguished from G. carbonaria by the two distinct oil spots in its spores.

Other species of fungi have been long associated with faeries, elves and other magical creatures. Marasmius oreades is a mushroom that grows in "fairy rings." Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric is often depicted with faeries, gnomes and elves, possibly because of its "magical" properties or because upon ingestion its hallucinogenic properties may cause one to believe that they see the little people.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

---Puck, Act 5, Scene I, A Midsummer Night's Dream. William Shakespeare.

Becky Curland with some friendsThis month's co-author is Becky Curland, one of my undergraduate students, well on her way to becoming my graduate student next year. She's already taking some graduate courses and is scheduled to graduate in December 2005. As you can see, she's very interested in gnomenclature...

We hope you enjoyed learning about the various little fairy cups. There are many little gems in the forest if you take the time to stoop down and take a closer look. There are many fun fungi to find in the forest.

If you have anything to add, or if you have corrections, comments, or recommendations for future FotM's (or maybe you'd like to be co-author of a FotM?), please write to me at volk.thom@uwlax.edu

This page and other pages are © Copyright 2005 by Thomas J. Volk, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

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