Have you ever journeyed across a forest to discover a ring of wild mushrooms, or found a round patch of dead grass amongst an otherwise vibrant field? If so, then you have stumbled upon the fabled fairy ring. Also known as a fairy ring, or magic circle, they are perfectly rounded and appear to be unnaturally formed. But how are they created? Is the answer steeped in fact or magic?

The myths and legends about fairy rings

Many communities have been mystified by fairy rings over the ages. All have varying theories and lore behind the phenomenon. In Celtic folklore, fairies would dance in these spots, causing the grass to become trampled and mushrooms to grow so they could use them as tables for a feast. Humans entering the circle would be misconstrued as crashing the dance and ultimately forced to dance by the fairies until passing out from exhaustion.

Australian myth states that dragons burned the rings into forest floors with their burning tails and German fables refer to the circles as witches’ rings, where witches would dance and brew potions. Many different cultures believe in different things when it comes to fairy rings. Some believe they are portals to different realms, others believe they harbour an underground fairy village. Whatever it is you believe about fairy rings, there is no denying that there is an air of magic surrounding them. But what would science suggest?

The science behind natural fairy circles

As with every otherworldly phenomenon our ancestors believed to be no different than magic, science has decided to take the fun and mystery out of fairy rings, breaking the spell on how and why these rings are formed. 

The process is known as mycelium growth. Mycelium is the underground organism acting as the root that causes mushrooms to sprout above ground. To get more deeply into the anatomy of mushrooms would probably require an article in itself, so for now we’ll stick to explaining how it forms fairy rings. 

When mycelium first spawns underground, it is relatively small. As it grows, it consumes nutrients from the soil, pushing further in an expanding ring to find more nutrients as its food source within the inner ring becomes diminished. This leaves the ground it has grown past without much nutrients, therefore unable to grow much of anything. When the mycelium becomes large enough, mushrooms will sometimes sprout from the surface. And there we have it, the mystery of fairy rings solved with science. 

Where to find a fairy ring

The magical thing about fairy rings is that they can be found anywhere, you could even be walking through more than you realise daily, as they will never reveal themselves until their mushrooms begin to sprout. Depending on the nutrient level of the soil, or the underground barriers, their is very little preventing mycelium from flourishing. However does this create problems in itself, as this behaviour can deem fairy rings to be quite the pest when found on one’s property. It appears that those pesky fairies have started a dance party on your own front lawn. 

Whether you believe that fairy circles are caused by natural or supernatural occurrences, I’m sure we can agree that this world is beautiful and mystical in so many ways, and these stories and folklore add to the complexity of nature in all its forms.