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Fairy Rings and Fairy Tales

July 10, 2013
by Lee Butler and Grady Miller

A fairy ring mushroom
Fairy ring mushroom (Photo: B. Shew)
A fairy ring in Raleigh, NC (Photo: Lee Butler)
A fairy ring in Raleigh, NC (Photo: Lee Butler)
An illustration from 1880 of a man saving his friend from a fairy circle
"Plucked from the Fairy Circle" - A man saves his friend from the grip of a fairy ring. From British Goblins: Welsh Folklore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions (1880)
A fairy ring on the NC State campus
Fairy Ring on NC State Campus (Photo: B. Shew)

Fungi love water and here lately in North Carolina we've had plenty of water via record rainfall to help ensure they don't go extinct any time soon. The majority of fungi in this world are beneficial, because without these fungi we wouldn't have some of the finer things in life such as beer or Agaricus bisporus that adorns salads and pizzas as a topping. However, there are plenty of them that cause problems for us in the form of plant diseases.

Fairy ring mushroom (Photo: B. Shew) You name a disease of turfgrass and we have likely observed it in the field or as a sample submitted to the NC State Turf Diagnostics Lab over the past 3-4 months. One that we rarely receive as a sample due to it's ease of identification is from a fairy ring. Most people associate fairy rings with mushrooms. To quote NC State alum Dr. Lee Miller, "not all fairy rings produce mushrooms and not all mushrooms produce fairy rings." This is important to remember, because if you observe mushrooms in your lawn, putting green, or croquet court, it doesn't necessarily mean you have a fairy ring problem.

Fairy rings have likely piqued the interest of mankind since day one. This fascination has led to some crazy theories over the years such as fairies danced there the night before or that it was created by the fiery tail of a flying dragon. Whatever you do, don't step into the ring, collect the dew from the grass blades, or attempt to destroy it because bad luck is guaranteed to follow!

Fairy rings tend to form in circles, arcs, crescents, or broken rings. During their radial journey outward, fairy ring fungi decompose organic matter, which in turn releases nitrogen and other nutrients back into the soil for plants to take up. This is why the ring will often be darker green than the surrounding turf. The good news is that fairy ring fungi don't actually infect the turfgrass plant like brown patch, dollar spot, etc. The bad news is that they leave behind a coating on the soil particles that renders the soil hydrophobic (repels water) and may ultimately kill the turf. This is important to know when it comes to controlling the symptoms caused by fairy rings. For example, if you are treating fairy rings curatively in a home lawn situation, your best bet may be as simple as punching holes through the dead rings with something as fancy as an aerification machine or as simple as a pitchfork. Either way, you are instantly helping water penetrate the affected zone. If you are only observing green rings, then you may be able to mask them with a light fertilizer application. In severe cases or in high profile areas, you will likely want to use wetting agents and/or fungicides in addition to the aforementioned tips.

Read more information about fairy rings, including control recommendations, here.