Fairy rings: those full or partial circles of mushrooms that sprout up periodically and disappear. Rings of mushrooms have captivated folks through the ages, and people have often associated them with mysterious and otherworldly origins -- hence the popular name fairy ring.
As a kid forever out in nature -- if my nose wasn't in a book, I was probably outside playing in the fields surrounding my house -- I was naturally captivated by little clumps of odd-shaped mushrooms, but also a little afraid, too, because grown ups were always cautioning (and rightly so) that some mushrooms can be poisonous -- fatally poisonous. So although I was careful never to touch mushrooms I saw in the field, I was also, nevertheless, extremely intrigued every time I happened upon them.
At the strength of her insistence, I froze stock-still, my puppy-like bounding about totally on pause. Grandma never used a strong voice and never spoke of fairies.
This intrigue only compounded when once, while visiting my grandma, I excitedly pointed out an actual complete circle of mushrooms -- the famed fairy rings I'd always read about but never seen -- right there in her backyard. "Never touch a fairy ring, and whatever you do, never go inside the ring," she intoned. At the strength of her insistence, I froze stock-still, my puppy-like bounding about totally on pause. Grandma never used a strong voice and never spoke of fairies. Naturally, I was totally enthralled. However, much to my frustration, when probed for more information, she clammed up and went right back to whatever she was doing -- as if she'd never spoken and there wasn't a ginormous fairy ring smack in the middle of her yard that I better not even step inside.
Well naturally, if I was curious before I was totally obsessed then. Why was she being so weird and mysterious? I never got more out of her, but here is some skinny on fairy rings, and perhaps a little on why you should — or should not — step inside:
A fairy ring forms when a certain class of fungi, Basidiomycetes, break down organic matter, such as rotten wood left behind from a fallen tree — which can provide the hallmark ring shape — or other relatively large bits of old logs or what have you are rotting underneath the lawn. If the site once held a forest, many rings often clump close together in places where trees once stood.
Fairies will lure you in to join the dance
Not only that, but certain fungi have been known to extend beyond the ring to form the Fibonacci Spiral (Golden Sacred Spiral — topic for a future blog alert!). Check out this great research project analyzing the spiraling annular patterns of fairy rings. As the tree roots or stumps gradually decay over time — thanks in part to the fungi — the rings will eventually disappear, and while the turf might temporarily brown under a particularly robust ring, the Missouri Botanical Garden emphasizes that the rings pose no real threat to one’s lawn, and you are perfectly safe stepping inside the ring, kicking over the fungi, and perhaps composting the carnage. What would my grandma think of that?
Fairy rings are known the world over, and legends typically connect the rings to fairies, elves, sprites, dancing witches, or the ancestral gods of the region. Tracey-anne McCartney provides a wonderful global overview of the legends and folklore surrounding fairy rings, including poems and songs that celebrate the enchanting allure of the fairy rings in the old stories the world over.
It’s really interesting because many of the stories, regardless of location, have common themes:
the rings are a site of fairy/elvish dancing, often after a full moon revelry
fairies will try to lure you in to join the dance
But (and they all say this):
Never, ever enter …
What might befall someone who enters a fairy ring (by choice or lure)?
befuddlement of varying duration
dancing to the point of madness or death
loss of time (what feels like but a moment can be weeks, months, or years)
crumbling to dust upon escape
escaping, but never again being quite right in the head
invisibility to other mortals
What’s more, destroying a fairy ring is at best pointless — because it will grow back — and at worst a grave danger to your person.
Certain fungi have been known to extend beyond the ring to form the Fibonacci Spiral
I see why grandma was so insistent, and I appreciate her concern that none of those fates would befall me….for I would’ve totally stepped in a fairy ring — especially if invited!