Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 13, 2009

So Called the Fairy Ground

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:41 pm

If you walk around a fairy ring nine times, they say one of two things will happen. Either you will open up the portal to the elfin underworld (a place where midget gangsters hide, I guess) or you will neutralize any magical spells emanating from that ring. These are potentially contradictory results, but such is the way with magical things – they are ephemeral and subject to whim. I can say for certain that dizziness is the 3rd verifiable  result of walking around a  fairy ring nine times. What are Fairy rings, you dare ask? Well they are ring or crescent-shaped markings evident in grassy situations (see above). They are caused by fungi, not little fun guys.

For centuries, these circular patches have been assigned magical origins. Circular things are always of alien origin, aren’t they. Think of crop circles, flying saucer landing marks, and pancakes (yes, waffles are earthly but pancakes are heavenly). These patches, often seen in woodland openings or open wet lawns, are places where elves apparently came out to dance at night. Some fairy ring growths look like they had been trampled by hundreds of tiny maniacal feet while others look as if they were fertilized by pixie sweat. The English poet Michael Drayton expressed this belief when he penned these lines in the early 1600’s : “and in their course make that round, in meadows and in marshes found, of them so called the Fairy Ground, of which they have the keeping.” O.K., I didn’t quite understand that either, but it sure was literary wasn’t it.

In reality, the subterranean world beneath a Fairy Ring is populated by countless tiny mycelium forming a thready mat of fungal fibers. When moisture conditions are just right these fibers send up fruiting bodies called mushrooms. The mushrooms dance upon the earth for a few magical days until melting back into the earth. Oddly enough, scientists are a bit baffled by these structures and why they grow in circular patterns. There are over 50 species of mushroom that form Fairy Rings. Some leave a ring of dead grass after the mushrooms fall away while others leave a ring of super green grass to mark their location. In at least one scenario, the fungus mat uses up the nutrients in the soil and are required to expand ever outward in order to find new ground.

The recent rains prompted many local fairy rings to erupt into chorus lines (see above). As you can see, these elves are not especially tiny – they were, in fact, large white gilled mushrooms. Some were close to eight inches across and, although not towering in stature, were fairly tall. They were definitely lords of their rings! I couldn’t place the species, but they resembled a type called Chlorophyllum. The gills , the spore-bearing structures under the hood, were slightly purplish in color (see here and here). Whatever the type pictured here, they are of the green ring type. In this case, the breakdown of the mycelium threads produced a nitrogen rush which in turn provided a jolt of energy – a goose you could say –  to the late season grass. In fungal discussion circles, this is known as a type II fairy ring. In type I rings the grass turns brown.

Although Fairy Ring mushrooms have a brief magical appearance above ground, they live the most of their lives underground. Don’t be tempted to underestimate them or assign them any temporary nature, however. These thready colonies are long lived and massive in nature. Some of the older circles can encompass a huge area and contain miles of intertwined fibers. It is worth remembering that one of the largest organisms on earth is a colony of lowly mycileum threads (located in Michigan) estimated to be over 1500 years old and weighing over 21,000 pounds! Now those are magical numbers.

Tread lightly upon the next Fairy Ring you encounter lest your cloddy feet disrupt the gentle pattering of mycelial pixies.


  1. But but but… fungi ARE little fun guys! 😉

    Comment by Monica the Garden Faerie — September 14, 2009 @ 9:35 am

  2. This was a delightful post to read! Well-written! I got not a few chuckles out of it (which probably gained me some strange looks, since I’m viewing this at the public library).

    All the fairy rings I’ve seen have had mushrooms – I’ve never seen just a ring of grass. Could be because the fairy rings I’ve seen have all been in the woods – no green grass around.

    Idea – could it be that they grown in a circle because the circle is the most energy efficient shape (think bubbles)? Just a thought.

    Comment by Ellen — September 14, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

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