Major Groups > Cup Fungi


Cup Fungi  

[ Ascomycota . . . ]

by Michael Kuo

"Cup fungi" is not a very scientific term, but it holds together many mushrooms that are shaped more or less like cups, saucers, or goblets. In fact the cup-shaped mushrooms are very diverse, comprising several different families and genera in the Ascomycota.

Some cups are easily identified, but many are extremely difficult, requiring microscopic analysis; brownish, stemless cups are especially frustrating. Fortunately most cup fungi are fairly simple in construction, which means that there are not a lot of features to assess--even under the microscope.

Macroscopic features you will need to observe in order to attempt identifying cup fungi include the upper surface of the cup (the spore-producing "hymenium," in Mycologese), the margin (use a hand lens; you are looking for tiny hairs or pustules), the undersurface (the sterile "excipular surface"), the stem or pseudo-stem (if present), and the flesh.

Microscopic features usually involve the hymenium, so a scalp section from the cup's upper surface, crushed under your coverslip, will generally suffice. Morphology of the spores, paraphyses, and asci should all be studied. (One frustrating hurdle in the study and identification of cup fungi involves the fact that immature specimens are often collected, making study of the spores impossible.) Ideally you should mount your sections in 2% KOH and in Melzer's reagent, since the reaction of the ascus tips to Melzer's (bluing or not bluing) can help greatly in figuring out which genus your cup fungus belongs to.

Recent investigations (including Tedersoo and collaborators, 2006) have suggested the possibility that many cup fungi we previously assumed to be saprobic decomposers of forest litter are actually mycorrhizal symbionts with trees. Further studies will, hopefully, discover more precisely which cup fungi are mycorrhizal, and whether they are always mycorrhizal or, like the morels, "facultatively" mycorrhizal.


Aleuria aurantia.

Galiella rufa

Peziza succosa

Partial, In-Progress Key to North American Cup Fungi  

NOTE: The key below delays using microscopic features for as long as possible--but does, inevitably, resort to them when the microscopic piper must be paid. Many places in the key are still undeveloped; I apologize to readers whose cup fungi are not yet included.

1.Cup initially (American) football-shaped and closed; later splitting into star-like rays; found in Texas, associated with stumps of cedar elm.

1.Cup not as above; range and ecology varying.

2.Cups when young growing partially underground (usually in clusters), the margin later peeling back in vaguely star-like rays; inner surface pale lilac to purplish when fresh; common in the Rocky Mountains and western North America, more rare in the east.

2.Not completely as above.

3.Growing in burned areas (burned forests, camp-fire pits, and so on).

3.Not growing in burned areas.

4.This portion of the key is not yet developed. For a few commonly collected species, see Geopyxis carbonaria, Peziza violacea, Rhizina undulata, and Sphaerosporella brunnea.

5.Margin of cup with tiny hairs, reminiscent of eyelashes or fringe (a hand lens may be required)--and/or undersurface of cup hairy (compare with option below).

5.Margin of cup without eyelashes or fringe; undersurface of cup bald, velvety, granular, finely fuzzy, scurfy, pustulate (and so on) but not hairy.

6.Upper surface whitish to creamy or pale bluish; undersurface with brown hairs that contrast with the paler surface underneath.

6.Upper surface dull to bright yellow, brown, orangish brown, red, or orange; hairs on undersurface variously colored.

7.Cup 2-7 cm across at maturity; usually with a ribbed pseudo-stem (often submerged in the ground) measuring up to about 2 x 2 cm; spores 25-30 µ long.

7.Cup 1-3 cm across at maturity; with or without a pseudostem; spores variously sized.

8.Stem absent; undersurface densely hairy, appearing more or less brown from the hairs; spores 20-25 µ long.

8.Pseudo-stem usually present (often submerged in the ground); undersurface sparsely hairy, appearing pale; spores 30-45 µ long.
Jafnea fusicarpa
(See Jafnea semitosta)

9.Cup goblet-shaped, fringed with prominent tufts of white hairs, about a centimeter across when mature; stem long and well developed.

9.Not as above.

10.Cup 3-7 cm across; upper surface dull to bright yellow or occasionally orangish yellow; outer/under surface dark brown to nearly black, hairy to woolly.

10.Cup well under 3 cm across; upper surface red to orange; outer/under surface varying.

11.Mature spores with oil droplets.

11.Mature spores without oil droplets.

12.Spores round; upper surface brown to orangish brown or brownish orange.

12.Spores ellipsoid; upper surface orange to red.

13.Cups to 3 mm across; mature spores smooth.

13.Cups to 15 mm across; mature spores with prominent warts.

14.Hairs pale yellowish or, at the most, light brown; growing on dung or occasionally on plant debris or soil.
Cheilymenia theleboloides

14.Hairs dark brown; growing only on dung.

15.Mature cup usually over half a centimeter across; hairs not branching (under the microscope).
Cheilymenia coprinaria

15.Mature cup usually less than half a centimeter across; hairs along the margin not branching, but hairs farther down the cup's outer surface branching.

16.Cups often clustered, arising from a shared, rudimentary stem structure; growing on the deadwood of hardwoods; cups up to about 3 cm across, often with a stretched appearance; paraphyses distinctively lanceolate and septate.

16.Cups not clustered and sharing a stem structure; growing on wood or not; variously sized and shaped; paraphyses not as above.

17.Cup with a well developed stem that is fairly long in proportion to the cup (not stubby or rudimentary).

17.Cup without a stem, or with a stubby or rudimentary stem.

18.Growing from sticks or (sometimes buried) woody debris in spring in eastern North America; goblet-shaped when young; inner/upper surface black; outer/under surface brown to black, usually scaly; stem black, tapered to base.

18.Not completely as above.

19.Stem prominently ribbed; cup yellow brown to brown, grayish brown, or gray.

19.Stem not ribbed; cup variously colored.

20.Ribs not extending onto the undersurface of the cap.

20.Ribs, by maturity, extending onto the undersurface of the cup.

21.Cup yellow-brown; ribs with sharp edges.

21.Cup gray to grayish brown; ribs with blunt edges.
Helvella costifera
(= H. griseoalba)

22.Cup tiny and bright red; growing from sticks or buried woody debris in hardwood forests east of the Rocky Mountains.

22.Not completely as above.

23.Mushroom goblet-shaped; undersurface covered with long, whitish hairs.

23.Mushroom saucer-shaped or cup-shaped; outer surface not hairy.

24.Cups minute (4 mm wide or less); growing on hickory shells, acorns, and other "nutty" debris; uniformly whitish to pale yellow.

24.Not completely as above.

25.Cups bright orange; stem whitish; common on the West Coast but rare or absent elsewhere in North America.

25.Cup not orange; stem variously colored; variously distributed.

26.Cups darkly colored (very dark brown to black).

26.Cups paler than above (tan, grayish brown, brown, or gray).

27.Widely distributed in montane and northern North America; growing terrestrially in woods; spores with one large oil droplet.

27.Apparently limited to western North America; growing from woody debris under conifers, often in spring, near melting snowbanks; spores without oil droplets.

28.Mature spores spindle-shaped.

28.Mature spores elliptical.

29.Stem whitish, stout (about as long as the cup is wide, or shorter); cup pale to medium grayish brown.

29.Stem brownish to brown, not stout (usually longer than the cup is wide at maturity); cup medium to dark brown.
Helvella chinensis
(= H. villosa, H. pallidula)

30.Growing on wood. Note: Only some of the larger and/or charismatic species are treated here. There are dozens and dozens of tiny (under 1 cm across), wood-inhabiting, cup-like species; see the sources by Dennis and by Breitenbach & Kränzlin, below, for an introduction.

30.Growing on the ground (if "the ground" is actually your carpet or flooring, see Peziza domiciliana).

31.Cup goblet-shaped, 2-5 cm across; flesh thick and gelatinous; upper surface drab orangish or reddish; outer surface dark brown or black; spores warted; growing in clusters on hardwood sticks and logs east of the Rocky Mountains.

31.Not completely as above.

32.Broadly attached to the wood so that only the extreme margin can be lifted; flesh somewhat gelatinous or rubbery.

32.Attached to the wood centrally, but not broadly; flesh fairly brittle.

33.Spores smooth.

33.Spores stippled or warted.

34.Mature cup less than 1 cm wide.
Pachyella babingtonii

34.Mature cup up to 5 cm wide.

35.Warts 1 µ or longer.
Pachyella adnata

35.Warts tiny (spores merely stippled in appearance).

36.Entire fruiting body blue to greenish blue; growing from greenish stained wood.

36.Not as above.

37.Spores 5-8 x 1-2.5 µ.

37.Spores 9-14 x 2-4 µ.
Chlorociboria aeruginosa

38.Upper surface bright red when fresh.

38.Upper surface otherwise colored.

39.Cup typically < 2 cm across; spores < 21 long; found east of the Rocky Mountains.

39.Cup larger; spores longer.

40.Found in the Pacific Northwest and California; spores usually unsheathed.

40.Found elsewhere; spores sheathed or not.

41.Mature spores with rounded ends; spores with several large (5-7 µ) oil droplets; spores when fresh and viewed in a water mount often encased by a full sheath; hairs on excipular surface not curling and twisted under the microscope.

41.At least some mature spores with flattened ends; spores with many oil droplets smaller than above; spores when fresh and viewed in a water mount lacking a full sheath but occasionally with "polar caps" (a sheathlike covering at each end); hairs on excipular surface curling and twisted under the microscope.

42.Cups bright yellow; under half a centimeter across.

42.Not completely as above.

43.Cup with a (proportionally) substantial stem; growing on small sticks or twigs.

43.Cup lacking a stem; growing on logs or stumps.

44.Growing on twigs of willows; spores 12.5-16 µ long; paraphyses not septate.
Hymenoscyphus conscriptum

44.Growing on twigs of other hardwoods; spores 16-24 µ long; paraphyses septate.

45.Cup 1-3 mm across; paraphyses with hyaline contents.

45.Cup 0.5-1.5 mm across; paraphyses filled with yellow droplets.

46.Tips of asci bluing in Melzer's reagent or IKI (in some cases, only the extreme apex of the ascus turns blue; use high magnification).

46.Tips of asci not bluing in iodine mounts.

47.Cups a shade of purple; spores fusoid or nearly so.

47.Cup variously colored; spores ellipsoid.

48.Most mature spores over 20 µ long, with 2 or more septa; spores often developing individual small, round conidia, especially at each end.

48.Most mature spores under 20 µ long, with 1 septum; spores rarely developing lemon-shaped conidia in chains.

49.Cup under 2 cm across; with a rudimentary stem; color varying from olive to dirty orange to brown; spores septate in Melzer's reagent.

49.Cup variously sized; lacking a stem; color not as above; spores not septate.

50.Spores 11-15 µ long; medullary excipulum hyaline to brownish in KOH; terminal cells on excipular surface cylindric to subclavate.
Chlorencoelia versiformis

50.Spores 8-12 µ long; medullary excipulum dark brown in KOH; terminal cells on excipular surface clavate to subglobose.

51.Spores smooth, without oil droplets; upper surface brown, often wrinkled near the center; undersurface whitish and minutely fuzzy; cup usually flattening out with maturity.

51.Spores roughened or nearly reticulate.

52.Appearing in late spring or early summer in temperate areas; spores roughened but not reticulate, often developing smooth caps at each end.

52.Appearing in late summer and fall in temperate areas; spores nearly reticulate, not developing smooth caps at each end.
Peziza badia
at Roger's Mushrooms

53.This portion of the key is not yet developed . . .

54.Cup bright red; collector admits it could have been growing from buried wood, and only appeared to be "terrestrial."

54.Cup not bright red; truly terrestrial.

55.Cup yellow or orange overall.

55.Cup otherwise colored.

56.Margin of cup bruising and discoloring bluish to greenish; commonly collected from the Rocky Mountains westward in spring or early summer (rare or absent in eastern North America).

56.Not completely as above.

57.Cup bright orange; not usually split down one side or appearing truncated (chopped off); spores warted; paraphyses with rounded ends.

57.Cup dull orange or dull yellow; usually split down one side and/or appearing truncated; spores smooth; paraphyses with hooked ends.

58.Cup usually split down one side (often appearing like an erect rabbit ear) but not appearing truncated; inner surface usually with pinkish hints; spores 12-14 x 6-7 µ.

58.Cup sometimes split down one side, but usually appearing truncated (almost never appearing like an erect rabbit ear); inner surface without pinkish tints; spores 14-16 x 7-9 or 9-11 x 5.5-6.5 µ.
Otidea alutacea
at MykoWeb

59.Cup split down one side, appearing somewhat like a rabbit ear standing erect.

59.Cup not shaped as above.

60.Outer surface brown; inner surface orangish to pinkish or reddish; growing under hardwoods in eastern North America; spores 35-40 µ long.

60.Not completely as above.

61.Spores with one large oil droplet.

61.Spores with 2 or more oil droplets.

62.This portion of the key is not yet developed; it consists of brownish species of Otidea (in the sense of Kanouse, 1949). For a few commonly collected species, see Otidea onotica and Otidea alutacea.

63.Cup growing partially underground in sand dunes and on beaches; tips of asci bluing in Melzer's reagent or IKI; spores smooth, 14-16 x 10 µ.

63.Not completely as above.

64.Flesh yellow when crushed or with age, sometimes exuding a juice that stains surfaces yellow.

64.Flesh not yellowing or exuding a yellow-staining juice.

65.Cup brown to yellowish; spores 16-22 µ long.

65.Cup lilac purple to reddish brown; spores 13-17 µ long.

66.Tips of asci bluing in Melzer's reagent or IKI.

66.Tips of asci not bluing in Melzer's reagent or IKI.

67.Spores roughened or nearly reticulate.

67.Spores smooth.

68.Mature cup 3-8 cm across; appearing in late summer and fall in temperate areas; spores nearly reticulate, not developing smooth caps at each end.
Peziza badia
at Roger's Mushrooms

68.Not completely as above.

69.Mature cup 3-10 cm across; appearing in late spring or early summer in temperate areas; spores roughened but not reticulate, often developing smooth caps at each end.

69.Not completely as above.

70.This portion of the key is not yet developed . . .

71.Paraphyses with orangish to yellowish orange or red contents in a 2% KOH mount (cup-like species of Gyromitra).

71.Paraphyses not as above.

72.Spores in a water mount with blunt apiculi that feature "scooped-out" ends.

72.Spores in a water mount without apiculi or with pointed to blunt apiculi that do not appear scooped out.

73.Found in the Pacific Northwest; spores with two prominent oil droplets, 10-14.5 x 7-9.5 , very finely warted, lacking apiculi.
Gyromitra melaleucoides

73.Variously distributed; spores primarily with one prominent oil droplet (sometimes with 2-3 droplets), much longer than above, usually appearing smooth with light microscopy, with or without prominent apiculi.

74.Apiculi of mature spores pointed.

74.Apiculi absent or, if present, broadly rounded.
Gyromitra olympiana

75.Cup deep, with a ragged or lacerated upper margin; outer surface two-toned: grayish brown above, but whitish toward the base; base indistinct, vaguely pinched and ribbed.

75.Not completely as above.

76.Spores with homogeneous contents; mature cup often very wrinkled or veined, at least centrally.

76.Not completely as above.

77.Spores smooth and elliptical, with 2 oil droplets in a KOH mount; flesh pale; cups .5-4 cm across, usually remaining deeply cup-shaped throughout development; often with a rudimentary pseudo-stem (usually buried in the soil).
(Tarzetta s.l.)

77.Not completely as above.

78.Cup surfaces bright pink; usually growing in recently burned areas.
Rhodotarzetta rosea
= Tarzetta rosea

78.Cup surfaces not pink; usually growing in non-burned areas.

79.Mature cup under 2 cm across; paraphyses with rounded, subclavate, or subacute apices (not lobed or hydra-like).

79.Mature cup larger than above (2-4 cm across); paraphyses developing irregularly lobed or hydra-like tips.

80.Pseudo-stem usually present; paraphyses becoming irregularly lobed but not hydra-like; spores 20-24 µ long.

80.Pseudo-stem usually absent; paraphyses becoming irregularly lobed and developing hydra-like tips; heterosporous (spores falling into two size groups: 20-24 µ long and 12-14 µ long).

81.This portion of the key is not yet developed . . .


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Kuo, M. (2013, December). Cup fungi. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site:

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