of fairy rings, and amanita mushrooms

emerging amanita muscariaANOTHER REMINDER TO STOP, LOOK—and then look it up: A ring of mushrooms, big enough and plentiful enough to be seen from out the window 50 feet away, piqued my curiosity. It had formed gradually the last few weeks around a big concolor fir in the field that is my steep backyard. What is going on, I wondered, and took the time to go find out. Apparently I have been cohabiting with a fairy ring. (Talk about woo-woo!)

When I got up close, I noticed not just how many mushrooms there were, but also that they were in all stages of development: tight buttons, yet to push upward; others that were halfway emerged, and giants whose tops were the size of butter plates or bigger. But why were they circling the conifer? And what were these robust fungi, anyhow?

Out came the field guides (actual and digital). I knew from some previous failures at identifying fungi that I needed to look at all the parts—not just the cap from above, but its underside (for gills, and how they are attached, or for no gills), also the stem.

I didn’t have to go far in my 1991 copy of Roger Phillips’s “Mushrooms of North America” because the genus Amanita is at the start of the alphabet—and because these mushrooms were big, had gills beneath the caps, which were covered in what looked whitish warts. Aha! (If you don’t have the book, start on the online version, with its visual photographic key to mushroom ID.)

After looking at images of all the variations, I presume it’s some kind of Amanita muscaria, probably the yellow-fruited variety formosa, but can’t be sure, and need I mention this: Don’t ever, ever, taste a wild mushroom without expert confirmation of its identity (and especially not an Amanita, a genus that contains some of the most poisonous mushrooms of all).

universal veil of amanita muscariaIf I had any lingering doubt about the ID of Amanita, it was the “universal veil” of some of the less-developed mushrooms that made me feel more certain—through I didn’t know what a “universal veil” was until I spent the time to learn.  It’s the tissue that protects the button mushroom, and in Amanita, some of it sticks to the developing cap, making those warts (unless it rains a lot, which can wash them off).

I jumped right from there to Mushroom Expert [dot] com, which told me more, including a very important clue to the “why” of what was going on out back by that tree:

‘…since amanitas are mycorrhizal, be sure to note what trees are growing in the vicinity of your specimens.’

Ah! These mushrooms—well, actually the underground vegetative part of the fungi, or mycelium (the mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies)—have a relationship with the root zone of the Abies concolor. That’s why it’s fruiting in a ring, a so-called fairy ring. Most of the plant kingdom depends on the symbiotic fungi called mycorrhizae, which inhabit the plants’ roots, to live.

Of course some cultures old and even contemporary think otherwise (and here’s where the woo-woo comes in). The traditional explanation: such a ring (including darkening of the grass in the same pattern) is where the fairies dance.

And then they were gone, or at least fallen and fading. Like the stand of jack-o-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius), which has set up late-summer shop the last two years in a grassy area to the west of the house, I hope the fairy ring of Amanita will rise again.

more on mushrooms (and fungi)

  1. Interesting. I’ve come across the red amanita (fly agaric) but not in a ring. Indeed, the only rings I’ve seen are smaller ones of smaller toadstools in the middle of lawns (don’t know what kind of fungi). Would love to see a big ring like this

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lucy. I have never seen the classic red one that is often cartooned as the ubiquitous toadstool, but these golden ones are going positively mad here. I had just a few mushrooms in 2009, and bow this year, WHOOSH! A whole ring. Crazy and wonderful.

  2. narf7 says:

    I too have a fascination for fungi. I might even study them in the future as a sideline to our horticultural studies. Without them we would be up to our eyeballs in debris and life would cease to be and we would not be able to enjoy many of our edible pleasures including alcohol and bread. I haven’t seen any yellow Amanita but we have the classic red ones predominately surrounding birch species. I had never seen them until I moved to temperate Tasmania from mainland Australia. We have all sorts of beautiful fungi here in Tasmania and I love heading out into the forests in autumn to see just what I can find. Thank you for a wonderful post and for the reminder to people to not eat anything that hasn’t been identified by an expert. We have cases every year of people eating the red Amanita’s and suffering and occasionally dying. There IS something magical about fairy rings and when you learn about the relationships that fungi have with most plants it gets even more magical. Cheers, again, for this lovely post :)

  3. That’s just beautiful. We used to have a fairy ring of puffballs that appeared every year at a previous house. This was doubly wonderful since they’re safe-to-eat.

    What you wrote about the beneficial relationships between plants and fungi is something a lot of people miss. I was watching a relative yank mushrooms from her yard and toss them for being “unsightly.” When I told her the important role they played as decomposers and soil-feeders, she was amazed. And next time I visited, she pointed out the many mushrooms in her yard and said “guess the trees are getting fed!”

    I actually just posted a few thoughts (and photos) of my own on mushrooms a few days ago:


    I don’t have your beautiful prose, but I do share your enthusiasm for living things… even the ones in the most overlooked Kingdom.

  4. Jason says:

    We frequently have mushrooms in the back, but they’re most often in the area around the stump of an old silver maple. l need to follow your example and look them up next time they appear – they’re not as striking as the ones in your fairy ring, though.

  5. leslie land says:

    Being a major mushroom nut, I’m beyond happy to see some wild fungi get the Margaret treatment (and to see pride of link placement given to my old pal Roger Phillips, whose work has helped SO many over the years). One small addition to this great overview, just in case somebody picks first, planning to look up later: “stem” means the whole thing, including the base. If you see one you’d like to learn, be sure to dig down to get the whole thing, not just the above ground part. Amanitas, for instance, grow from a “bulb” or sac that envelops the base of the stem. All Amanitas have one – it’s one of the ways you know you have an Amanita and not one of the other veiled mushrooms – and its shape and size can be an important clue to which species of Amanita it is.

    1. margaret says:

      Great info, Leslie Land, as always. I never dig them up, but in all the field guides of course they show the underground “bulb” if it has one at the bottom of the stem as well, or whatever else is down there! I just cannot bear to disturb them. :)

  6. Sally says:

    I live in Ghent not so far from you, Margaret, and I love reading your blog. This fall I was delighted to find two fairy rings similar to yours around pine trees in my yard. I had never seen such large mushrooms. There seemed to be several varieties although I guess many of them could have been the same species in various stages of development. Thanks for the information on how to look them up. I wasn’t having much luck.

    1. margaret says:

      Crazy, right Sally — after a relatively dry year, too. And I akways though there were many species, but now I think it’s the very varied stages (through there was a much smaller medium-brown species nearby). Love it!

      Hi, Kris. Thanks for the FB link. And yes, they just appear, out of nowhere, instantly. Fascinating. Thanks for saying hello.

  7. AmyO says:

    We found a few of the same type growing next to our house, but in the vicinity of a large white pine. They were there one day and completely gone the next! Not a trace left. Could some animal have eaten them? I didn’t think so as I knew they were very poisonous. Very interesting!

  8. Terry says:

    On my 6 acres in Northern PA I have several spots that Fairy Rings appear each summer- depending on the weather it seems.
    For several years now, my granddaughter and I will watch and wait for them. When we do find them, we will go back to the house for her ‘fairy wings’, part of an old Halloween costume- and dance inside the ring. It has become one of our ‘special’ activities we look forward to.
    And yes, I have taught her the dangers and that she should never even touch the mushrooms.
    Thanks for your blog- I always learn something new!

  9. Gayla Templeton says:

    A close friend recently lost her brother who ate mushrooms that he thought were what he had ingested before. He lived in the mountains in CO and had been eating wild mushrooms for over 30 years. Evidently the ones that have been thought perfectly safe have undergone a mutation due to our dirty environment and are no longer safe. We’ve read that the same thing is happening in England. Even if you have eaten it safely in the past, eat only a tiny bit to check for a reaction. David ate a batch and couldn’t survive the dameage it did to his organs. He was a wonderful guy and a great environmentalist. So sad that it was his downfall.

  10. Gayla – that’s awful. I’m so sorry for your friend.

    As much as I love mushrooms (and though I enjoy foraging for wild plants), I’ve heavily warned my children of their dangers. I’ve heard anecdotally that “most hardcore mushroom foragers eventually end up eating one that kills ’em.” Unless I know for sure that there are no poisonous members in a family, I won’t put a mushroom on the table. And the Amanitas are always out.

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