Smoky Mountain Fairy Rings. Finding a Smoky Mountain fairy ring is always a special event! Last year was one of the wettest on record, more than 13 inches of rainfall above the norm. And one of the consequences of so much rain is mushrooms. As you hike through fields and woods this year, you may notice an arc or circle of mushrooms. In grassy areas you may also see circles of either dead grass or exceptionally green grass. All of these are fairy rings!
The visible rings are fascinating and have been the subject of mythical lore from ancient times. In fact, it’s still fun to imagine a midnight meeting of fairies, gathered in their circle beneath a waxing moon to dance and sing while other sprites watch from their seats on the surrounding mushrooms. But the real magic is taking place underground.
Fairy circles start with a few mushroom spores being naturally deposited in a given area, usually by rainfall or by an animal brushing against a mature mushroom. When conditions are favorable (think wet weather, think 2018), the spores germinate to form mycelia (the mushroom equivalent of roots). The mycelia emit enzymes that dissolve the nutrients in the soil so that the mycelia network can absorb them and grow. As the nutrients and moisture are used up around the original spot of germination, the mycelia move outward to form a circle. The resulting lack of nutrients can cause the vegetation within the circle to die. This happens within the circle of the flat-topped mushroom called the giant funnel (Leucopaxillus giganteus). But the enzymes of another mushroom, the purple puffball (Calcatia cyathiformis), actually releases nitrogen into the soil, creating a circle of richer, faster growing grass. Little wonder that legends about these fairy circles variously attribute both good and bad luck to their appearance!
When a fairy ring appears in the lawn you’ve spent so much time and money to develop, you may not care all that much about moonlit midnight dances; you want to be rid of it. Treatment, however, can be difficult. If you have a brown circle, try hand watering the area and applying a lawn fertilizer. If the circle is green, try applying nitrogen to the entire area to mask the circle. But the best strategy is prevention. Most fairy circles develop in lawns because of thatch build up. Annual removal of thatch followed by soil aeriation, typically done in the early spring, are the best preventative actions.
But when you find fairy circles in our meadows, fields, and forests—just enjoy them; the fairies do! A few of our favorite places to find fairy rings in the Smoky Mountains are Cades Cove, Cataloochee, and Oconaluftee.
HeySmokies.com is honored to have Carl Parsons as a contributing writer. Carl is Deputy Editor for Storyteller Magazine, a member of the Writers’ Guild of Sevier County, TN, and a Tennessee Master Gardener.
Source material credit: Fairy rings