WASHINGTON -- Have you heard of "fairy rings?" Some people respond, "Who hasn't?" while others look at you funny and wonder if it's a trick question or a joke.
Well, it's not a trick question and it's not a prank. Fairy rings have appeared across the Washington, D.C., area this summer.
Cloudy skies and frequent rain have helped those bizarre rings of fungi grow in parks, in yards and in the woods. The mushrooms associated with fairy rings appear when the weather is wet, and we've had a lot of wet weather this summer.
The sprouting mushrooms are the fruit of fairy rings and they don't last long, but the fungi living in the ground that produce the mushrooms grow for many years, periodically popping up mushrooms. When the mushrooms are not visible, the presence of a fairy ring can be detected by a lush, green circle of grass, or a dead circle of grass, depending upon the type of fungi in the ground.
How do fairy rings form? Several factors need to come together for the rings to develop. A spore from a mushroom needs to take root to form mycelium, which is essentially an underground fungus that sends out threads in all directions from where it first started.
A mycelium secretes enzymes that break down the various sources of ground nutrients, which allow the fungus to feed and grow. The mushrooms then pop up from time to time to produce reproductive spores that are released into the air to create more fairy rings.
For a fairy ring to thrive, there needs to be an area with nutrients that are evenly distributed in the soil, with no obstructions to inhibit the outward growth of the ring. Lawns are favorable locations for fairy rings because most people fertilize their lawns evenly so there are plenty of nutrients for the feeding fungi.
There are more than 60 mushroom species that grow from fairy rings. Fairy rings also come in many sizes as the fungi underground keep growing outward through their lifetime. A ring in Belfort, France, has a diameter of a quarter-mile and is thought to be more than 700 years old.
For many years, fairy rings have had a mysterious and malevolent reputation. Supernatural creatures, such as fairies and witches, are believed to dance around the ring. It is also believed that fairy rings are portals to unearthly worlds. Those brave enough to enter a fairy ring might be whisked off to another dimension, never to be seen again.
English legend tell us that the mushrooms of the fairy ring are stools for fairies to rest upon, after a long night of revelry. And on Halloween and Walpurgis Night, the most sacred fairies and their brethren appear inside the rings, harboring their most angry and scary moods. Fairy rings are to be avoided on those nights!
If all of this fungi-related information is making you hungry, fairy rings can produce edible mushrooms but they can also produce poisonous ones. Identify fairy ring mushrooms carefully before cooking your mystical mushroom dinner. For reference, an edible fairy ring mushroom is Agaricus campestris and a poisonous fairy ring mushroom is Chlorophyllum molybdite. Eat with care!
So what can you do if you have an unwanted fairy ring growing in your yard? You can use a lawn mower to mow down the mushrooms, but that is a temporary fix. Mowing doesn't kill the fungi underground because it can live up to 8 inches below the surface. If you're very determined to remove a fairy ring from your yard or property, here's a online guide with possible solutions: bit.ly/2xvIYPF
But you may want to think twice before destroying your fairy ring. That may produce a lot of angry fairies running around your yard looking for their lost ring, and that's never fun.