photo by Yuval Helfman, Dreamstime
Fairy Ring Folklore
With the tallest trees on earth filtering golden rays of sun down upon a lush sorrel carpet dotted with curious mushrooms, a redwood forest is surely the idyllic setting many picture when reading a fairytale. However, the term “fairy ring” hails from Europe where folklore across the continent describes the celebrations of fairies, elves, or witches dancing in a circle under the light of the moon which leaves behind a ring of vegetative growth. If a person were to cross into the ring, they were said to be punished—often by dancing their life away in the ring.
Today we know that those European fairy rings are created by mushrooms popping up from mycelium—tiny fungal threads that look like roots—underground that spread outward in a circle as they grow. The redwood fairy rings of the pacific coast sprout from roots of magnificent giants and when fungi come into play, the real magic begins.
Redwood Fairy Rings
Walking through a coast redwood forest in the Santa Cruz mountains, redwoods can often be seen growing in fairy rings. Resilient redwoods can sprout new trees from their branches, trunk, and, like the fungi, from their roots. Although redwood trees have cones to disperse their seeds like other conifers, they are ironically tiny for the tallest living species on earth.
Coast redwoods grow far more successfully from sprouts that emerge from roots which are able to take advantage of the parent tree’s existing root system. After facing threats like logging and fires in the Santa Cruz mountains, a coast redwood tree will sprout new trees from its roots which spread out from the tree in a—you guessed it—circle. The trees grow tall and strong together as they are cared for by the parent tree's roots.
Over time, the parent tree’s trunk at the center of the ring will break down and return to the soil further nourishing its next generation and leaving a lovely ring of redwoods. Unlike the mythical punishments of fairy rings of European folklore, fairy rings of redwoods, or any redwood forest, can provide you with magical rewards in health and happiness.
- Read more about how redwoods are recovering from the CZU fire.
Health and Happiness
Stepping into a redwood fairy ring—or any redwood forest—can improve your physical and mental well-being. This is both magical and scientifically proven. A redwood supports more than just its sprouts in the ring.
Redwoods support the environment of the forest around them. They are capable of cleaning more carbon from the air than any other tree, improving water quality through their roots, and releasing chemicals called phytoncides into the air that help to condense fog, keeping the forest more moist and cool. When you breathe in the pleasant scent of those phytoncides, they improve your health by helping to lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and increase white blood cells that fight cancer.
Spending time in a redwood forest can also improve mental health by reducing depression and increasing self-esteem, focus, memory, and creativity. Being surrounded by the tallest living things on earth which are capable of living thousands of years can leave us awestruck and help our struggles feel smaller and help us feel more connected to the larger world.
- Check out our Fall and Winter Hikes to visit the redwoods for a physical and mental health boost.
Redwood fairy rings are also called “family circles”. Until recently, a family circle was thought to be made up solely of clones of the parent tree at its center. However, newer research has uncovered the beautiful depths of these redwoods. Much like us, a redwood family circle includes both genetic and chosen kin—composed of the clonal sprouts of the parent tree, genetically unique redwoods, and even other species of trees.
The mighty redwood’s strength and endurance for millennia has a lot to do with this diversity. Our human concept of diversity pales in comparison to coast redwood’s whose genomes are nearly nine times longer than ours allowing for even biological family members to have enormously different genes. Diversity is crucial for the survival of the family circle as well as the forest. The different genetics make it harder for the entire family circle to fall prey to pests, illness, natural disasters, and climate change.
The close proximity of the trees in a ring allow them to physically shield and support one another in storms. Redwoods spread their roots out up to 100 feet and intertwine them with other roots to help hold one another down and stabilize one another in high winds. These widespread roots are shallow which allows them to avoid rot during floods and to reach water from dew and fog near the soil’s surface in droughts.
Like a true family, these and other resources are shared amongst one another through mycorrhizae—an underground fungal network that uses mycelium like the European fairy rings of lore—that connect the various tree’s roots and allow them to communicate needs and deliver nutrients. Thanks to these networks, trees whose genetics are resilient to a pest or illness are able to nurse those who aren’t so they have a better chance of recovering from the plight.
A redwood family circle illustrates the magic and beauty of family—both biological and chosen—the strength in our connections and differences, each playing a part to help the whole. When you visit a redwood grove, you can see the beauty of cooperation and connection writ large and through science we can begin to comprehend how we have so much to learn from the magic of the forest.
- Learn more about mycorrhizae and Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest with Dr. Suzanne Simard.
The Magic of Science
The beauty, diversity, resilience, and interconnectedness of the natural world is magical. Science allows us to explore and better understand the magic all around us, including the enchantment of like redwoods. These ancient giants harbor worlds of creatures in their branches, are capable of changing the weather to suit them, multiply from fire or an ax, and communicate and share through fanciful fungal threads.
Science allows us to peer behind the curtain at how redwoods perform these and other magic tricks yet to be discovered. Redwoods have endured for millions of years and there is much we can learn from their ability to adapt to changing conditions like fire and climate change and their strength in collaboration like family circles. Redwoods show us that caring, sharing, and supporting one another are not whimsical human notions—they are in our nature, all nature—and they are how we can all survive and thrive together, happily ever after.
Thanks to people like you, thousands of acres of redwood forests—mysterious fairy rings, strong family circles, and beautiful, ancient giants—have been protected. With your help, we can continue to protect redwood forests, learn more about how they can help improve our environmental and physical health, and help people visit the redwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains to experience the magic, health, and happiness they bestow.