Answer Man: Are mushroom fairy rings supernatural?

News-DemocratOctober 25, 2013 

Please tell us about those fairy rings of mushrooms that I see springing up now. I saw one in a field that was 20 feet across. Edible? Probably not, I would imagine.

-- C. Kaye, of Belleville

Considering how ugly the orangy-brown clumps in my backyard look right now, fairies are the last thing I'd associate them with.

Nevertheless, that's what these odd circular patterns of mushrooms have come to be called because people centuries ago gave them supernatural origins.

For example, Germans called them witches' rings because they were thought to be where witches dance on Walpurgis Night, a spring festival on April 30. The Dutch claimed the circles mark where the devil put his milk churn. Other traditions are less grim: Some said "elferingewort" (elf-rings) were burned into the ground by the dancing of elves.

Of course, science now has taken all the magic out of this fungus among us. They are merely circles of mushrooms that arise as they take advantage of an abundance of organic matter in the soil.

"They're triggered by moisture, so we often do see them in the autumn," said Chip Tynan, who manages the Missouri Botanical Garden's Horticulture Answer Service. "They're associated with decaying matter in the soil. That could be anything from lawn thatch to buried matter underground."

Often -- as in my case -- they feast on the decaying root systems of trees taken down years ago.

"People tend to forget just how far the roots of trees may spread," Tynan said. "It's often many years or even decades after the removal of a large tree before these start to show up."

And, as Tynan points out, when you see the mushrooms growing in your yard, you're only seeing part of the picture. He compares it to an apple tree.

"In the case of apples, the tree is visible," he said. "But in the case of fungal organisms, we don't see the organism itself. It's present as 'mycelia' -- rootlike structures that are underground in the soil. And we don't know that they're there until we actually see the fruiting body, which is the mushroom."

These threadlike mycelia tend to grow out in all directions from a central point. Hence, when the mushrooms appear, they sprout up in this characteristic circle. As the mycelia continue to seek out new sources of food, the circle grows. One of the largest rings ever found was estimated at 2,000 feet in diameter and 700 years old near Belfort, France.

The rings are caused by fungi of the class Basidomycetes, which can produce upwards of five dozen different kinds of mushrooms. So, as you note, unless you're a fungus scholar, you'd better not sample them -- unless you get an OK from an expert at www.missourimycologicalsociety.org.

But just by being there, they can hurt your lawn, Tynan says. Certain fungi can penetrate and kill root cells, resulting in dead rings of grass. And, as they grow, they may form a barrier that prevents water from seeping into the soil, thus producing drought stress.

For tips on eliminating such rings, go to www.mobot.org and search for "fairy rings." Hmmm, looks like I have something else to put on my weekend to-do list.

A few weeks ago, you wrote about the old Abend's Malt Shop being extensively damaged by an explosion when workers at Commercial Transport sent gas fumes into the city's water system. I lived at 208 S. 20th St. until I was 8, so Abend's was an early memory. It was the place we all wanted to go for our birthdays. Wimpies and root beer from a barrel -- the absolute best! And, Commercial Transport was right across the street from my house. My father would rant and rave all the time about the noisy trucks warming up at all hours of the night. Now, I find myself asking others born and raised here about the location of old businesses and our childhood and teenage haunts but nobody seems to remember this stuff. I was thinking if I just had a 1950s layout of what businesses were about three blocks in all directions from the square. I don't know why I care -- old age, I suppose. Anyway, thanks for the memories. -- redpup3

It doesn't have wimpies or root beer in a barrel, but when it comes to old business locations the Belleville Public Library can serve up all the childhood memories you can handle.

Just head up to the genealogy section on the second floor and page through the extensive collection of Belleville city directories. In those annual publications, you can find what homes and businesses were on every city block, address by address.

Happy reminiscing.

Today's trivia

Name a St. Louis Cardinal who hit more than 40 home runs and managed the Birds to a World Series crown.

Answer to Thursday's trivia: Can any older St. Louis Cardinal fan possibly forget Bob Gibson's spectacular 1967 World Series -- pitching and winning three complete games while allowing just three runs and hitting a home run to boot in the Game 7 clincher (against Boston, no less)? And, he was coming back from a broken leg that had knocked him out for eight weeks. It's a feat that likely never will be matched. And, when you figure in Gibby's two wins in the 1964 and 1968 series you have a record of seven consecutive victories, which still stands today. Is it any wonder that he was the MVP of both the '64 and '67 series? He is one of only three players to win the award twice since it started in 1955: Sandy Koufax (1963 and 1965) and Reggie Jackson (1973 and 1977) are the other two.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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