I saw this ring of mushrooms as I was walking through my neighborhood today. Have you ever noticed them growing in a circular formation and wondered why?
You’re not the only one. Before the age of science, people were unable to explain some of the curious things that happen in nature. Many of them made up stories to try to make sense out of things they didn’t understand. The Greeks concluded that rain consisted of tears of grief from the Hyades, whose brother Hyas had been killed by a lion. Some Native Americans believed that the ocean was formed because Thunder and Earthquake wanted it to be there.
If you’ve ever seen a mushroom ring in an open, grassy or wooded area, you probably can imagine why people started telling stories about them. There is something very unusual about mushrooms growing in a large circle. Long ago, people in the United Kingdom and Ireland assumed that the mushrooms had been left behind by dancing fairies or leprechauns. People in Germany said that witches met late at night along the edge of the rings. Scandinavian people told stories of elves skipping around mischievously at the site of a mushroom ring.
Then, the scientists came along and ruined all the fun. They figured out that it all starts with an underground organism that we don’t see, called mycelium (mī sē′lē əm). This mass of hairy-looking tubes makes up the root of the mushrooms. It feeds on the rich nutrients in the earth and it continues to spread outward from the center, looking for more and more fertile soil. As the old mycelium dies and decays, the grass directly above it feeds on the nutrients it produces. This is why the grass is darker in color and healthier-looking inside a fairy ring than it is outside of it.
At some point, the mycelium decides to rise up to the surface and release spores in the form of mushrooms. Scientists haven’t been able to completely agree on why it suddenly does this, because it hasn’t run out of food. If the nutrients are distributed equally across the lawn, the mushrooms pop up all around the center. Though it isn’t perfectly circular, it’s usually round enough to resemble a ring.
Although there is one edible mushroom commonly known as the “Fairy Ring Mushroom”, many different types can be found in these circular formations. Some of them are poisonous, so nobody should ever try to identify a type of mushroom based on the way it grows.
Mycelium can live for hundreds of years and grow to enormous sizes. One ring in France is about 800 meters wide and is estimated to be close to 700 years old! There are also many enormous fairy rings in southern England that have been growing for hundreds of years.
In a spot where mycelium thrives, the ring grows a little larger around each year, as long as the mycelium under the ground can still find nourishment in the soil. Once it runs into a barrier (which might even be another fairy ring), it stops expanding. It leaves behind an odd-looking circle of dead grass that may look burnt. Then, the same ring of grass grows tall and lush because of the nutrients the dead mycelium left behind.
It’s actually easier for a mushroom ring to grow in a well-tended lawn than in the forest because the nutrients under the ground are more likely to be distributed evenly in lawns. Fairy rings need water and warm temperatures to thrive, so they usually disappear when the weather becomes cold or dry.
Even today, some people try to explain mushroom rings with modern-day myths. Sometimes, people come across a spot where a ring of mushrooms has died and think that a U.F.O. landed there!
Have you ever found a mushroom ring in your yard? If you ever do, now you’ll know why it’s there, but it’s still fun to pretend that elves, fairies and leprechauns made it… or go ahead and make up your own myth!