Are you among those who vehemently deny the superstition gene but still think twice about walking under a ladder or cringe when you break a mirror? If so, you might consider adding fairy rings to your “I don’t believe that!” list.
This summer the Mississippi Coast is blessed — some might say cursed — with fairy rings.
I spotted them in the most likely and unlikely places as I drove around the coastal counties May through August. More likely continue to pop up after heavy rains.
These blotches of white resemble carelessly tossed nose tissues in yards, open fields and on the sides of roads. But on closer inspection, the white debris is “enchanting” mushrooms. I use that adjective to describe their gee-whiz factor, not the magical.
Simply explained, fairy rings are circles of mushrooms caused by the growth pattern of mycelium, and mycelium is a plant organism that grows underground.
What are fairy rings?
After certain weather conditions the mycelium shoots up its above-ground reproductive fruit that we know as “mushrooms.” Worldwide, about 60 mushroom species can do the circular fairy ring trick.
They won’t grow just anywhere. Soil type, dirt composition and available nutrients must be just right. Another factor is obstruction, be it Mother Nature’s fallen tree, or a man-made driveway across otherwise open land.
The mycelium stops at such obstructions and its natural circular pattern is interrupted. That’s why sometimes you see partial circles of mushrooms.
Bigger and bigger and bigger...
Unobstructed, the mycelium pushes its circle outward so it can absorb more nutrients as it depletes the food within the circle. This action causes the the mycelium’s growth, and depending on soil and weather, the resulting fairy ring can widen 3 inches to 1 ½ feet each year.
I can’t locate the first piece I wrote on fairy rings, but I’m certain such writing was spurred by a mushroom ring in the alley that borders the south edge of my property in The Saints neighborhood of Biloxi. Each year, the fairy ring got bigger, eventually outgrew the alley and spread into the yard. Sadly, I’ve seen no sign of that ring since Hurricane Katrina washed away a thick layer of my soil.
Some folks think of mushrooms as weeds. I find them fascinating, their colors from whites to brilliant orange and their sizes from thick needles to salad bowls making them quite photogenic.
Although I spotted mushroom rings while growing up on the Coast, I never thought much about them until the sabbatical year I lived in Ireland as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. Lots of fairy rings adorn the Emerald Isle, as you might guess.
The lore of mushroom rings
Fairy ring folklore and superstitions abound across Europe, and immigrants brought those beliefs to this country. Skeptical America, however, tends to quash them in modern times. That’s a shame.
Folklore and the tradition of story-telling is important to the human psyche. It is only occasionally true, but such stories tweak our imaginations and, hopefully, we can laugh at the scary parts. I remember walking a field in Ireland, about to step inside a giant fairy ring when an Irish friend yelled at me to stop. Walking inside the ring was bad luck, I was warned.
So I backed up. Now, I’ll never know if it’s true.
In tradition-bound Ireland the rings are thought to be places where the Wee People come to dance at night. You certainly wouldn’t want to disturb the playgrounds of these pixies, fairies and elfs, for they are known to get even with us mere mortals.
That superstition makes me think about the Katrina mermaids, who 11 years ago claimed so many of my worldly possessions, apparently even my fairy ring.
So, will the mermaids flipper inside a fairy ring? See what I mean about imagination?
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.