My German mother was a highly superstitious soul, especially when it came to the natural world. For example, one day a âfairy ringâ of mushrooms appeared in our garden. My mother became agitated and told me not to disturb the ring, as it was a “hexenringe” – a place, she believed, where witches congregated and dire consequences befallen. anyone entering or tampering with it.
Fairy rings have a rich history in European folklore and myth. The Austrians claimed that the rings were created where the dragons rested, while the Dutch viewed them as a place where the devil churned his milk. Probably the most prevalent tales derived from English, Celtic, French, and Scandinavian folklore: Fairy circles were mystical gathering places created by dancing fairies and elves, and mushrooms were handy resting stools when tired. ; any human who dared to step into the ring would be forced to dance until they either went mad or died of exhaustion. Some Native American tribes attribute the appearance of fairy rings to dancing bison, the large rings made by adults and the smaller ones by calves. Today, UFO enthusiasts claim that the rings are a response to an alien spaceship that landed at the exact spot where the ring formed.
While lacking the cultural cachet of folklore, the scientific explanation is interesting in itself, although we still don’t fully understand the whole story. Fairy rings happen quite naturally. About 100 different fungal species are known to produce fairy rings, which are classified into two major groups: free and captive.
Free fairy circles grow in open grassy areas, and fungi are not associated with other organisms. Meadow mushrooms, gemstone hairballs, and the Scottish beanie are a few examples of fungal species that fall into this category. The fungus’ underground body, the mycelium, is made up of thread-like cells that feed on dead organic matter.
As the nutrients are depleted, the mycelium grows outward in a circular fashion. Lacking adequate nutrients, the central part dies and a living ring forms, marking the perimeter of the mycelial growth. A ring can grow for several years, depending on the availability of soil nutrients and weather conditions. This type of fairy ring can get quite large, but the reigning champion, a fairy ring found in northern France, is said to be nearly 700 years old and around 2000 feet in diameter.
Captive fairy rings, on the other hand, thrive in forests and are formed by mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi form important symbiotic associations with many vascular plants, especially forest trees. In his book “Mushrooms of Northeast North America”, mycologist George Barron notes that trees depend on this type of fungus for their survival.
âEach tree has hundreds of thousands of miles of fungal threads associated with its roots,â writes Baron. âIt is these mycorrhizal fungi that provide the tree with nutrients and water essential for healthy growth. In return, the tree gives the fungus sugars which are made by photosynthesis in its leaves.
Fungi use the sugar obtained from the partner tree as an energy source for the growth and maintenance of the mycelial network, as well as in the production of fruiting bodies, or fungi. The most common trees in northern forests that form this type of partnership are birch, oak, beech, pine, fir and spruce.
Tied fairy rings grow around one or more central trees. The mycelium remains associated (attached) to the roots of its partner tree, limiting how far from the tree the ring can extend. While free fairy circles are easier to spot in open areas, captive forest and woodland fairy circles are more plentiful. Some common fungi that can produce attached fairy rings include fly agaric, death hat, clouded agaric, and matsutake.
If you come across a fairy ring, take a close look. While you’re unlikely to spot a dancing fairy or witch, these rings still seem magical.
Frank Kaczmarek is a retired photographer and biologist and author of “New England Wildflowers: A Guide to Common Plants”, a Falcon field guide published in 2009 by Globe-Pequot Press. He lives in Lyman, New Hampshire. Illustration by Adelaide Murphy Tyrol. The Outside Story is attributed and edited by Northern Woodlands Magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: nhcf.org.