What is a Fairy Ring?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A fairy ring is a large colony of fungus which has developed in such a way that when the fungus puts out fruiting bodies, also known as mushrooms, they appear in the form of a ring. Each year, the fairy ring gets larger, with some fairy rings being quite large, and hundreds of years old. Fairy rings look truly distinctive and unique, and many cultures include fairy rings in their folklore, thanks to the fact that they can seem a bit mysterious.

Many different kinds of mushrooms can form a fairy ring.
Many different kinds of mushrooms can form a fairy ring.

When a fairy ring is not putting out mushrooms, it may still be visible. The grass inside many fairy rings is a different color, as the mycelium of the fungus typically consumes a large amount of the available nutrients, so the grass or plants inside a fairy ring can die off or yellow. The perimeter of the fairy ring, on the other hand, may receive extra nutrition from the mycelium as it prepares to fruit, and as a result it can appear much greener and darker.

The perimeter of the fairy ring may receive extra nutrition from the mycelium as it prepares to fruit.
The perimeter of the fairy ring may receive extra nutrition from the mycelium as it prepares to fruit.

Fairy rings are probably most common in woodland areas, but they can also be found in open fields and meadows. At least 40 species of fungus are known to produce fairy rings, and there may be more. No one is quite sure why fairy rings form, but they typically consist of one large fungus which has simply grown outwards in all directions, probably as a result of ample nutrients in the ground to feed the fungus. The spreading growth may be caused by a desire to seek out more nutrients as the mycelium depletes them. People with lawns sometimes find fairy rings frustrating, as they are impossible to control, and they are very noticeable.

Some people think fairy rings are good omens, while some think they are the work of the devil.
Some people think fairy rings are good omens, while some think they are the work of the devil.

You may also hear the fairy ring referred to as an elf ring or pixie ring. These common names for this interesting phenomenon all reference folk beliefs about the fairy ring; many cultures believe that fairy rings are used as a dancing ground by fairies. This would also explain the dead grass in the middle, which would presumably be trampled by little feet as fairies danced.

Each year, a fairy ring gets larger.
Each year, a fairy ring gets larger.

Some people think that fairy rings are lucky, linking them with more general beliefs about fairies being good omens. Others found them unlucky historically, fearing that the fairies were actually works of the devil who might try to entice people to the dark side. Modern observers often simply find them interesting and pretty to look at, especially when extremely large and well developed. It can be fun to visit a fairy ring every year to watch it grow, as it will continue to spread unless the soil is radically disturbed.

Marasmius oreades is the most common type of mushroom found in a fairy rings.
Marasmius oreades is the most common type of mushroom found in a fairy rings.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

pastanaga

@Ana1234 - Well, but fungus isn't exactly the best studied organism in the world either. It's such a diverse species and I think we only know a small fraction about how it works and grows.

From what I've heard it's not all that strange to imagine a group of fungus sprouting from the same source and just getting bigger and bigger each year. It's almost like a spreading ring on the water, but I imagine it's a matter of using up nutrients in one place and then moving onto the next without interfering with the other fruiting bodies nearby. It makes perfect sense for it to be in a gradually growing ring and for the grass on the inside of the ring to be more malnourished than the grass outside of it.

Ana1234

@bythewell - That might account for some of the fairy rings in the world, but I can't imagine it would be true for all of them. It should be fairly easy to test for it, after all, and as far as I know fairy rings are still not considered to be a well understood phenomenon.

bythewell

I've heard that one of the things that a fairy ring might actually be marking is the site of a large tree that has died. The decaying wood and roots are still present in the soil and provide extra nutrients for the mushrooms, plus they naturally spread in a circle because of the shape of the root system.

That makes fairy rings even more romantic to me, even though it's a slightly mundane explanation. I mean it's basically a natural grave marker for an ancient tree.

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