How do fairy rings come about?

A naturalist in the Gulbenkian Garden


These strange mushroom formations are visible parts of an underground world that hides, out of sight. Rui Simão, from the Ecofungos Mycological Association, helps us unravel this mystery. 

In Irish culture, for example, it was believed that fairy rings were “associated with magical portals between the realm of humans and the realms of elves, goblins or fairies”, explains Rui Simão, a specialist in mushrooms. 

Fairy rings are clusters of mushrooms that appear in forest environments, on meadows and lawns, including urban parks and gardens such as the Gulbenkian Garden. Usually, this set of mushrooms takes the form of a ring – hence the name. There is a reason why it is shaped this way, that has nothing to with the supernatural world, but has everything to do with the mysterious life of fungi. 

Fairy ring formed by Latticed Stinkhorn Clathrus ruber © Rui Simão


In fact, a mushroom is a very small part of a fungus that is often only visible for a short time, usually in the autumn. However, almost all of the fungus remains underground throughout the year, where microscopic filaments known as hyphae, divide and spread in length, forming a network called the mycelium. 

Fairy rings “derive from the radial and more or less concentric pattern of the mycelium”, explains Rui Simão. ”The appearance of fruit bodies (mushrooms) occurs in the most recent area of the mycelium, at the ends of the structure, from there we can observe the formation of the ring”. 

Most of these “rings” are formed by mushrooms of the saprophytic species – fungi that feed on decaying matter in the subsoil, helping recycle these nutrients in the natural world. This is the case for the Marasmius oreades species, exemplifies the specialist. 

The Head of Ecofungos has also found fairy rings formed by other species, such as the Witch heart (Clathrus ruber), as well as mushrooms of the Clitocybe (very common), Agaricus and Hebeloma genera.

Mushrooms Clitocybe odora © Holger Krisp/Wiki Commons
Mushrooms Agaricus sp. © Dr Hans Gunter Wagner/Wiki Commons


So, if you happen to come across one of these strange mushroom formations, you now know that they are just the “tip of the iceberg” of a vast underground network linked to the fungi (as well as tree roots), which extends underground. 

“And if you have already photographed a fairy ring, please let us know where and when it happened and send us the photograph, to [email protected] 

Every month throughout the year, Wilder magazine reveals some of the phenomena taking place in the Gulbenkian Garden and the natural world. 

Updated on 15 december 2021

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