Countryside writer MIKE BAGSHAW springs into action with a trip down to the woods in Ryedale

SPRING has been creeping up on us for a while but now it’s officially here - meteorologically that is. March 20 is regarded as the first astronomical day of spring, when the earth reaches a specific point on its yearly orbit of the sun, but the first of the month is what climate-watchers go by.

From now on those wonderful early flowers will begin to add colour to dull, wintery woods and hedgerows. The yellows of celendines and primroses mimicking the sun we hope to see more of and the hues of a clear blue sky reflected in violets and bluebells.

Ironically, what caught my eye recently in Thurtle Wood, near Terrington, was neither of these colours but a series of circular, red objects lying on the forest floor.

The colour was so intense that something of human origin was my initial gut feeling, probably discarded plastic of some sort, but on closer inspection they revealed themselves as fungi - the fruiting bodies of a species called scarlet elf cup to be exact.

This common English name describes them perfectly, referring to both their eye-catching colour and unusual dimensions. If an elf measuring about 1ft tall required a receptacle to drink his or her beverage from, these would fit the bill admirably.

Woodland fungi usually sprout either from the leaf litter of the forest floor or direct from living or dead pieces of wood. Each of my elf caps was attached on its convex side to a dead branch, most of which seemed to have fallen from nearby hazel trees. The bulk of the “body” of the fungus is actually inside the branch - a network of fibres called a mycelium which digests the wood in the interior, feeding itself and recycling soil nutrients simultaneously.

The very visible cup itself is what’s called a fruiting body - an organ designed to produce and disperse the organism’s spores. It is effectively an inside-out mushroom.

Although I have never witnessed it, spore ejection in scarlet elf cups is a spectacular affair. Apparently, tiny clouds of these microscopic grains are fired out with such force that, if you place your ear up close, a crackling noise can be heard.

All this action is happening at an unusual time for fungi as most of them famously appear above ground to reproduce in autumn. Two of the the scarlet elf cup’s close relatives, the orange peel fungus and the green elf cup, are both usually autumn fruiters, but evidence of the green one can be found all year round.

If you have ever found a dead branch in the forest where the wood itself is stained bright green it is likely to be caused by the presence of Chlorociboria aeruginascens but the cups themselves are really seen. This green-stained wood is prized by some woodworkers who produce decorative carvings called Tunbridgeware.

Scarlet elf cups have never been put to such artistic use but they have been utilised medicinally in times gone by - dried and ground up they were put in new-born babies belly buttons if they were slow in healing.

As for edibility, the jury seems to be out; most text books declare them to be, “... inedible but not poisonous” though many foragers in the UK are more than happy to eat it cooked and the French, who are much more adventurous than us gastronomically, eat it raw in sandwiches or add it to fruit salads.