My first thoughts on seeing red and white spotted mushrooms popping up in my garden were fairies and elves. Fairytale storybooks tell you that these handsome structures are homes for the little people so who am I to argue!
The huge toadstools had sprung up underneath the birch trees after rain. They are called fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), which alludes to their inedible and poisonous nature rather than to any romantic fairy links. The name fly agaric (literally ‘kill fly’) arose from the idea that steeping these toxic mushrooms in milk would attract and kill flies.
Experiments have been carried out to see if fly agaric does indeed kill flies. Reports from these experiments suggest flies are stupefied by the mushroom and milk solution not killed, but are then easier to swat.
The fly agaric is not native to Australia but has naturalised here from the northern hemisphere where it has long featured in folklore as well as in fairy stories. There are even suggestions that the red and white livery of the fly agaric inspired the Santa suit and the mushroom’s hallucinogenic properties may have led to the idea of Santa’s flying reindeer.
Look for these striking fungi growing in colonies under pine or birch trees in autumn especially after rain. Unless you have a fly problem, just leave them to grow as part of your autumn garden and who knows, they may offer shelter to fairy folk. They tend to be found in cooler zones of southern Australia.
Other fairy homes
While red and white spotted toadstools provide a natural fairy or elf home, gardeners can also set up containerised fairy gardens in pots or terrariums, or make one in the garden. The idea of creating a fairy garden in the garden is very trendy in the US. It is slowly gaining interest among Australian gardeners.
Creating one of these fairy gardens is a like furnishing a doll’s house. Delicate plants are combined with fairy-sized ornaments such as wells, tables and chairs, tiny letterboxes and even little clotheslines. The items are made from wood, metal, wire or ceramic so they are safe to use outdoors. You are sure to find cute little fairy things in stock at your local garden centre or at online fairy garden shops to get you started, like these from Alfresco Gardenware.
To add landscape interest, include sand, fine gravel or small stones and pebbles. For appropriate plants select dainty groundcovers such as baby’s tears (Soleirolia soleirolii), native violet (Viola hederacea), dichondra or moss for a shaded fairy garden or a small-leafed herb such as creeping thyme if the garden is in a sunny spot.
Suitable small flowering plants could include heartsease, cyclamen and crocus, which are flowering now in autumn, or dogs tooth violets, spring crocus, grape hyacinth and miniature daffodils for spring blooms.
[Footnote – this story first appeared in TasWeekend in the Saturday Mercury, April 25, 2015]