Fairy Rings

What is a fairy ring?

Fairy rings are fungi that form a circle in the ground. They’re a natural occurrence you might encounter in a deep forest or sometimes in your front yard. Their presence is noted in three ways: a ring of dark, lush grass; a ring of brown, dead grass; or one of the initial two accompanied by mushrooms.

The common folklore behind fairy rings is they marked the location where fairies and dwarves danced and partied the evening before. We’ll talk more about that later.

What causes these rings?

The reason they form a circle has to do with what’s going on beneath the soil. Typically these rings sprout in the wetter months, when the conditions are ample for fungal growth. With the added moisture and organic compounds in the soil, the fungus proceeds outward, munching on all of the delicious contents of the soil. And what are they eating? Their diet consists mostly of wood, roots, and stumps.

While the fungus may only announce its presence at certain parts of the year, the fungus remains dormant in the soil. When active, the ring can be dark and lush, due to the extra amount of nitrogen released by the decomposition. Grass lives off of nitrogen so when it’s plentiful, the blades of grass take advantage.

As long as there is viable sustenance in the ground, the ring of fungi can last indefinitely. The largest ring on record is located in Belfort, France. It’s been alive for close to 700 years and has amassed an astounding quarter mile diameter!

As the fungus radiates outward, it not only releases nitrogen, but also generates an array of mycelium. While only the outermost ring of mycelia is active, it still leaves behind a network of web-like material that can affect the vegetation.

The mycelia released from the fungus is hydrophobic or very dense, grass can be choked out and can’t take in any water as a result. In this instance, we see the brown, dead grass emanating from the ring. Some would consider this the point where their fanciful ring has become a nuisance.

How do I stop this thing?

Unfortunately, since fairy rings are being driven by processes underground, you’re not going to have an easy time stopping it.

Nitrogen fertilizer – If the fairy ring produces a dark ring of grass, try giving the rest of your lawn a nitrogen boost. On the upside, you’ll end up with the lushest lawn on the block.
Fungicide – A non-organic method that can hinder growth. It may not eradicate the fungus. This approach would be more useful if the problem was above ground. The fungus can live up to 30cm below the soil, out of reach of the fungicide.
Soil extraction – A more involved approach would be to remove the soil containing the fungus. This is a significant amount of work and still doesn’t guarantee removal. It is, however, the most effective.

Any greenskeeper can tell you that fungus is not a beast easily tamed. The mushrooms and mycelium will carry on their merry little way regardless of your efforts. With roughly 50 different species of mushroom that form fairy rings, our work is cut out for us.

So what about the folklore?

Okay, let’s put the fun back into fungi. See what I did there? Kids love that one. The folklore behind these fanciful events is quite polar to say the least. Some cultures view them as places to avoid at all costs while others speak of a venue where pixies and fairies once danced and sang.

European cultures, primarily German and Dutch, associate fairy rings with witches and devils. Their view was very superstitious and warned that anyone who dared set foot inside a fairy ring would be cursed. French folklore states that the ring was guarded by toads that would were watching from the surrounding forest.

Dutch history maintains that it was where the devil churned his milk. Germans believe witches placed their kettle in the forest and concocted a brew. What magic spilled out of the containers is what caused the ring.

It wasn’t until the Western European crowd began throwing their spin on fairy rings that they were viewed as something positive. These ideas go back as far as the medieval period. It was said that fairy rings were definitive proof that elves and fairies lived. What else is a fairy to sit on besides a toadstool?

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