All about mushrooms

Published 10:18 pm Tuesday, September 25, 2018

By Biff and Susan Andrews

I had an odd upbringing. I read lots of Rudyard Kipling — especially “Puck of Pook’s Hill” and “Rewards and Fairies.” In these works, two kids named Dan and Una meet Puck in a fairy circle, where he introduces them to various colorful figures from British history. At the end of each tale, the kids are made to chew oak, ash and thorn leaves, which wipes their memories clean. (Some day if you’re bored, research oak, ash and thorn as a trio.)

But what about the fairy ring? Why is it such a magical place?

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I’m not sure if I was misinformed as a child, but I always believed a ring of mushrooms was the remnant of an old dead tree whose roots decayed and engendered the fungi. Not so.

A fairy ring is obviously a place of magic and myth. It may take any of three forms — a circle of dark green grass, a circle of dead brown grass or a ring of mushrooms. It is an area where the soil conditions are right for the fungus mycellium to grow. If the fungus breaks down the soil with lots of nitrogen, dark green grass results. If it kills all the nutrients in the area, dead grass results. But generally, it generates a ring of mushrooms. The ring is most notable when it occurs in a lawn or meadow, but they can also occur in the forest. It will recur in the same place year after year, growing by 3 to 19 inches per year. Most circles max out at about 30 feet, but there’s one in a French forest that’s 700 years old and 2,000 feet across. Some rings love the fertilization of animal droppings, especially of rabbits. I used to see a ring of mushrooms and see Dan, Una, and Puck — now, I see rotting fungus. But at least it’s pretty rotten fungus and growing mold spores. So much for magic.

Mind you, the rest of the world still sees the enchantment. Fairy rings are also called pixie rings, elf rings and witch’s rings. To enter one on May Day, Midsummer’s Eve or Halloween is bad luck. In Austria, people believe they were caused by dragons. In Germany, they are where the witches gather to dance. The Dutch say such a circle is where the Devil churns his milk. Whatever.

In literature (aside from Kipling), Shakespeare deals with them in several plays and poems — notably “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest.”

“And I serve the Fairy Queen

To dew her orbs upon the green

To dew our dances in the whistling wind.”

It’s all in Shakespeare.

So the next time you see a ring of mushrooms in the neighbor’s yard, you decide — imaginative delights of witches and fairies or a lawn nuisance caused by fungi? They’ll be back year after year — larger each time.

I’ve decided to continue to believe in Dan, Una, and Puck — and forget what I know about mycelium.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at