Superstitious Origins

The Scientific Reason You Should Avoid Fairy Rings

It’s not the fairies you should be worried about. It’s what lies beneath…

I used to visit my step-family in Rhode Island during the summers. It was humid, and my brother and I spent a lot of time traipsing about in the woods out back looking for sticks and berries. The canopy was so dense you couldn’t tell if the sun was coming up or going down. It was permanently no-time. There were tiny fairy rings the span of your hand everywhere. We never touched them despite no one telling us not to.

There’s something unearthly about fairy rings. Alien. Why are there no mushrooms in the middle? What would cause them to grow in a circle? Even if you don’t believe in the supernatural, it’s hard not to feel unnerved when you stumble across a fairy ring in the woods, or one crops up overnight in your backyard!

Early people also felt there was something unnatural about fairy rings. They believed fairies had marked the land, and it wasn’t a good thing. The unnatural rings were harbingers of ill luck. And there’s some science that supports those beliefs.

What are fairy rings

Fairy rings, or fairy circles as they’re sometimes called, are usually a circle of mushrooms with dead grass in the middle. They can be as small as a child’s hand span, such as the ones my brother and I saw in the woods, or as large as many meters. Oddly enough, it’s not one variety of mushroom that create these circles of death. The University of North Carolina has identified up to 60 varieties of mushrooms that cause fairy rings.

Faerie ring in the pasture by Marion Doss via Flickr

But not all fairy rings have mushrooms! Landscapers classify fairy rings into three main types:

  • Type I – a barren ring of grass
  • Type II – a lush ring of grass
  • Type III – a ring of mushrooms

Now that we have an idea of what we’re dealing with, we can begin to unravel why fairy rings were considered bad. In fact, your local landscaper would still tell you they’re not a good omen.

What happens if you step in a fairy circle

In the 21st century, we don’t blame odd occurrences on the fairies. However, in the 18th century, people would. Superstitions were the bridge between experience and science.

There was anecdotal evidence that bad things happened in fairy rings. You wouldn’t want to plant crops anywhere near a field marked with one. Nothing would grow in it! And if one showed up in your field, the whole crop would eventually go fallow. People thought the fairies had laid claim to that land.

The Fairy Ring (1824) by Richard Doyle. Public Domain

Even stranger, people who sat in fairy rings or messed with the mushrooms reported feeling dazed. Some would wander off confused… and not return. Generally speaking, you’d be warned to steer clear of them.

To our predecessors, fairy circles were associated with bad experiences. No crops meant no food. People who wandered into the woods were hard to find. All of these things you’d want to avoid. And those beliefs held some truth, they just didn’t have the science to explain why… hence the fairies.

The spiritual meaning of fairy circles

Fairies are wee folk. They don’t have wings like Disney’s Tinkerbell. They live normal lives, own shops, birth children, and even get married. Where they differ is their supernatural powers.

T. H. Thomas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s said the rings are formed when fairies dance in circles. By that standard, the circles were considered holy places because fairies were seen almost like fallen angels. To disturb the circle is to desecrate holy ground. Obviously, the fairies will punish trespassers accordingly… by say, ruining your crop or confuddling you.

What causes fairy rings

Science says there’s some truth to fairy rings! Our predecessors might not have known the scientific reason for their ill luck, but they had seen the evidence: fallow fields that wont grow no matter how much you fertilize or till.

There’s more science: mushrooms give off spores. Some of these spores can make you confused. They can cause memory loss, paranoia, and hallucination. Sounds like the perfect beginnings for a fairy story. With all the spores, you’d probably believe you saw fairies.

Why fairy rings are dangerous

Fairy circles are caused by mycelium, the true organism beneath mushrooms. Mushrooms are the visible fruit or product of mycelium. If the soil is evenly rich, the mycelium in the soil will spread evenly outward, in a circle. In the middle lies dead, nutrient-drained soil.

Mycelium by Pictoscribe via Flickr

Just because there’s no “fruit” doesn’t mean there’s no mycelium lurking underneath. The thin, stringy tendrils are invasive and near impossible to completely remove. Tilling over the soil does not kill it. In fact, the mycelium is more likely to spread. The mushrooms will suck the life out of your crops, especially if you fertilize your soil.

How do you get rid of a fairy ring naturally

Fairy rings are notoriously stubborn. The spores are airborne and can travel miles. You can also get a fairy ring in your lawn by having organic matter contaminated with spores or mycelium reach your lawn. Fungicide isn’t usually recommended as the chemical are so harsh.

However, there are some natural ways to reduce fairy rings. First, down mow your lawn on the lowest setting. This stresses the grass, making it susceptible to fungus. Also, you can aerate the fairy ring by removing plugs of dirt in the area. Then top it with sand to dilute the organic material in the soil, which the fungus is feasting on. Another tip is to remove any dead debris such as cut grass and tree stumps. These are all delicious food for fungus.

Are fairy circles good or bad

So you might be wondering, are fairy circles good or bad? They’re neither. If you don’t mind a ring of mushrooms in your yard, then they aren’t dangerous. Or if you want to see fairies, they might even be good!

However, if you’re trying to grow crops in a field, they can be devastating. This is why many farmers would refuse to plant over a fairy circle. Based on experience and tales, they knew the whole field would go fallow. They didn’t know about mycelium or mushroom growth. They thought they’d be invoking the wrath of the fairies. It was more like they’d be helping out hungry mycelium.

Ring around the Rosie, from Flower Fairy Tale (1898) by Ernst Kreidolf. Public Domain

So, advice from a non-believer: respect the fairy rings… unless you’re looking to get high and see some fairies.

I’ll leave you with a few ways the fairies used a ring and its mushrooms:

  • as parasols and umbrellas
  • as little stools to picnic on
  • as doors to their underground kingdoms
  • as landing pads for dragons

… and lastly, as portals for elves to travel between realms. All of those are vastly more interesting than mushrooms!


What do you think?

Have you ever seen a fairy circle? I’ve only encountered them in the woods. But they can grow in lawns. I can’t imagine how unsettling that would be to have a fairy circle crop up in my backyard.

If you’ve seen one, or know someone who has, please share! What did the mushrooms look like? How big was it? Did it give you that otherworldly feeling? I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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