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A ring of mushrooms that seems to suddenly appear overnight. Fairy rings are considered magical by many, a sign that the fairys danced, or held a tea party, in the ring the previous night. It was believed if you sat at night where a fairy ring happened often, or sometimes where one had appeared the day before, you could see the fairys dance and celebrate. But to step into the ring and disturb their sacred space was to break the spell and you would fall into an enchanted sleep until the dawn. Once the day has broken it is "safe" to go into a fairy ring, but it is still considered wrong, damaging something sacred somehow.


When I was very young and it was a beautiful spring or summer evening, i would often take a magnolia leaf, broad and flat, and twigs, forming them into a table. Then i would take acorns, pull the caps off, fill them from the hose, or when it so rarely was, dew, and use them as cups for "tea". Sometimes i would take azela petals and tear them up into tiny pieces, thinking if they looked so pretty the fairys would like to eat them because they would be sweet and beautiful. When i did this, i left smaller twigs as silverware. It just felt right, because i *knew* there was magic in my backyard, i knew they were there with all my six-year old soul.

The cups were usually dry by morning, the petals sometimes scattered, sometimes gone, sometimes there. I could never tell if it was the dear little creatures, the cat, or the wind who disturbed the wee table.

But once... just once... i came out in the morning and found a fairy ring around my table. It was the most magical sacred thing i'd ever seen... and may be to this day.

Just once, for all their teas, they left in return a fairy ring for me.

Fairy rings are natural fungus growths firmly entrenched in superstition because the process by which the ring forms is not popularly understood; rings don't generally occur as natural formations. The key to understanding is knowing that the important parts of the organism we call a mushroom is underground. The recognizable stem and cap is really only the reproductive portion of the fungus, called the sporophore. The true body of the organism is hidden from view and much larger.

A fairy ring begins as a single point of underground fungus growth, likely planted by tiny floating spores from another mushroom far away. Over a number of years, the fungus begins to grow and branch out as tubular filaments called hyphae. As the hyphae grows, it tangles and interweaves into a mat called mycelium. The mycelium is the real body of the mushroom fungus, and is hidden growing inside its source of nutrients (tree bark, roots, decomposing material, soil, etc). The mycelium secrets enzymes which digest and absorb nutrients from its growth medium.

In some cases, the mycelium growth can be relatively uniform and expands in a rough circular shape. The longer it has to grow, the larger the circle can be (specimens have been found up to 50 feet (15 meters) in diameter). If the circle is incomplete or unable to grow in a certain direction, the fairy ring may become an arc or crescent instead. This tangled mat of mycelium can grow, hidden from view, for years and even centuries in some species.

When conditions are right (day length, heat, humidity, moisture, soil quality, etc.), the mycelium buds into much more organized growths of hyphae which form the large visible structures of stem and cap called sporophores, or what most people know as mushrooms. This process can happen very quickly, often overnight. A single mat of mycelium can produce several sporophores at scattered points along its growth. After several weeks, the mushroom is capable of producing spores and fulfills its purely reproductive purpose.

It is the combination of even, circular mycelium growth hidden underground and rapid development of sporophores which creates the structures called fairy rings. The rings can alternatively be the result of a pile of buried, decaying matter or tree stumps and roots on which the fungus is feeding. This is a common occurrence in newly cleared land, especially golf courses. Several species of mushrooms are capable of forming fairy rings, some of which are poisonous.

While the actual sporophore growths only occur once in a while, fairy rings can also manifest themselves as a ring of dead grass (called necrotic fairy rings) or a ring of very dark green grass, and sometimes as a ring of dark green grass around a ring of dead grass. Death occurs due to the water-resistant layer of mycelium which prevents water from reaching the grass roots. The dark green grass coloration is due to the fungus releasing large amounts of nitrogen into the soil as it feeds.

Fairy rings are a nuisance for lawns because it is difficult to kill the entire organism. Merely removing the mushroom portions is not enough, since they are just the reproductive organs. Fungicide can prove to be only a temporary cure, since the underground mat of mycelium can form a water-resistant layer the fungicide cannot penetrate. Good results have been achieved by aerating the soil in the area before using fungicide. In the case of fungus growing on decomposing buried material or stumps, these will have to be dug up and removed.


Thanks to elwen for pointing out to me why mushrooms sprout so quickly. The initial bud from the mycelium is formed by the slow process of cell division, but the sporophore then expands by cell inflation. It gets bigger by pumping more water into the cells.

A naturally occuring circle of redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens).

The redwoods of California flower, and produce cones each year. The cones, between 2 and 3 cm long, contain the seeds of the next generation of redwoods-- or so you might think. Each mature redwood tree can produce as many as 250,000 seeds annually (each about the size of a tomato seed), but most redwood seeds do not sprout and grow into trees. A normal rate of germination rate may be anywhere from 0.23% to a mere 1.01%.

Instead, many redwood trees are clones-- they sprouted from the base of a mature tree, and are able to use the nutrients and roots from the original tree. When the mature tree dies, or is logged, what is left is a circle of younger trees, colloquially known as a 'fairy ring.' Surprisingly, genetic analysis of these rings have found diverse gene stocks in the rings: non-clones (seedlings) "complete" the circle.

Sources:
Becking, Rudolf W. 1996. "Seed Germinative Capacity And Seedling Survival Of The Coast Redwood (Sequoia Sempervirens)" Conference on Coast Redwood Forest Ecology and Management . 18-20 June 1996, Humboldt State University, Arcata, California. <http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~jleblanc/WWW/Redwood/rdwd-Seed.html> (30 August 2004)
W. J. Libby, T. S. Anekonda, J E. Kuser. 1996. "The Genetic Architecture Of Coast Redwood." Conference on Coast Redwood Forest Ecology and Management . 18-20 June 1996, Humboldt State University, Arcata, California. <http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~jleblanc/WWW/Redwood/rdwd-The-7.html> (30 August 2004)
California Department of Parks and Recreation. "About Coast Redwoods." <http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=22257> (30 August 2004)

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