Do you dare enter a fairy ring? The mythical mushroom portals of the supernatural
To avoid this terrible, cavorting fate, you can take specific measures, such as running around the ring nine times (nine times only, as 10 is too many and will undo the procedure). It is said that to enter the ring without penalty you can run around the ring during a full moon, but only in the direction the sun travels during the day. If you do this you might hear the fairies dancing underground.
You might also wear a hat backwards, because this is said to confuse the fairies and they will not do you harm.
This fellow is probably in trouble – his hat is not on backwards. The Fairy Ring; the Enchanted Piper (c.1880) Public Domain
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Can Science Explain the Mystery?
In present day the fungi that causes the natural phenomenon is well understood. Mycelium is a spreading fungus which grows in fertile, damp environments. In good conditions, the spores will develop into mushrooms (the most well-known being the edible Scotch bonnet, or fairy ring champignon). The mushrooms reach out of the ground and create an easily visible ring. Underground, the mycelium networks out under the grass, moving outward from the center, and feeding upon organic matter and decomposing as it travels. The dead mycelium forms a thick, water-repellant mat that starves the grass roots of nutrients and moisture. Eventually the land within the ring withers and dies from starvation, but the leading edge of the ring remains lush and green, as the feeding/dying and decomposing mycelium releases fertilizers. This cycle can continue for centuries, and the ring grows, shrinks, and moves around the countryside, delighting some people and disturbing others.
Clitocybe nebularis mushrooms in part of a ring. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
We in modern times may scoff at the traditional superstition of the fairy rings, but scientists still struggle to explain the so-called “fairy circles” occurring in Africa. It is reported that in Namibia in southern Africa, bare, circular spots on the sandy grasslands have been occurring for unknown reasons. The circles behave much like the mycelium growths, persisting and then vanishing after decades. But scientists have ruled out a similar fungus, and remain stumped as to why these rings have been appearing in the remote, arid landscape. Local oral tradition explain them as the work of spirits and nature gods.
The enigmatic rings of Africa can be about 6.5 feet (2 meters) to almost 40 feet (12 meters) in size. The circles appear, and then disappear, leaving “ghost circles” behind. Credit: Mike and Ann Scott of the Namib Rand Nature Reserve
The differences of the lush outside of the ring compared to the dead inside, with no obvious cause, undoubtedly led the people of antiquity to presume that otherworldly affairs were at work. Certainly the abrupt, unpredictable change in the natural world, the age-old circle symbolism, and the fact that these ‘portals’ seemed temporary and mobile were convincing evidence of the supernatural.
To the consternation and frustration of those now seeking unblemished lawns, ridding a yard of a fairy ring can be as tricky as dealing with the legendary fairy-folk. To stop the mycelium from spreading its necrosis, one should pick the mushrooms as soon as they appear. Next, a thorough soaking of water may drown out the problem, but often it requires digging down beneath the white fungus to remove the tainted soil. This can sometimes mean digging down several feet or more to get all the infected dirt, replacing it all with fresh soil, and restarting the lawn anew.
Perhaps it would be easier just to take your chances with the fairies.
Featured image: A mushroom ring creating a circle on the grass. These rings were believed to be portals to the fairy realm, and areas of danger. (Unukorno, Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )
By Liz Leafloor
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Pappas, Stephanie. 2012. “Mysterious African ‘Fairy Circles’ Stump Scientists” LiveScience [Online] Available at: http://www.livescience.com/21228-mysterious-african-fairy-circles-mystery.html
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