Foxfire: The Mountain’s Freaky Lightshow… Fairy Fires!



The enchanting forests located just outside your door are dark and mystical, hiding an untold number of mysterious features never to be known by humans, in fact, the vast majority of nature’s secrets are seldom even spotted by man’s weak eyes.

Planet earth is filled with natural wonders capable of leaving the viewer both astonied and inspired – but even when one considers the millions of incredible phenomenon nature showcases each day, it’s hard to imagine anything more incredible, frightening and as mystifying as a natural event that goes by one of two names: “foxfire” or “fairy fire”.

To the unsuspecting observer, stumbling upon a foxfire can be an alarming sight in the blackness of night, deep in the dense forests of a darkened underworld, but to the student of science, the sight of a fairy fire glowing atop a log is true magic.

At its core, a foxfire is a bioluminescence light created by some species of fungi present in decaying wood. Emitting a bluish-green glow due to a chemical reaction taking place inside the fungi’s enzyme, a foxfire’s light can on a few rare occasions be bright enough to read by.

Scientists have speculated that the purpose of the light is to attract insects that will spread spores, further growing the fungi.  Others have hypothesized that the light serves as a warning to hungry animals, as bright colors are often exhibited by poisonous or unpalatable plants to many animals in the forest.

The oldest recorded documentation of foxfire is from 382 B.C., by Aristotle, whose notes refer to a light that, unlike fire, was cold to the touch. The Roman thinker Pliny the Elder also mentioned glowing wood in olive groves.

Foxfire was used to illuminate the needles on the barometer and the compass of early submarines.

Throughout the early days of mining, foxfires were often spotted glowing from wooden support beams inside mines.

In addition to serving as the title to a series of handy books about Appalachian culture from the last half-century, foxfire has also made an appearance in a Smurfs episode.  In the episode, “The Smurf who couldn’t say no”, Pushover Smurf was instructed to gather foxfire from a marsh for a firefly festival. note that both fireflies’ light and foxfire occur due to a single substance, luciferin.

It is interesting to note that “fireflies” aka “lightning bugs”, glow due to the same substance that makes foxfire shine, a naturally occurring chemical known as luciferin.

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  1. Thank you for your posts. They are wonderful! The teacher in me wonders if there’s a misspell of the word “astonishing” in the article. Possibly your word, “astonished” in the second paragraph is one I need to look up. Again, your posts are a treasure. I share them with my friends and several have signed up for them on their own.

  2. Let’s here it for spell check. It corrected the word I was talking about! “astonied”. (Maybe that’s a mountain word for being stoned! lol!

    • Yes, we love autocorrect too!

      We like the word “astonied”, it’s an old English word seldom used these days, meaning:
      1 deprived briefly of the power to act: dazed
      2 filled with consternation or dismay
      Check it out:

      Thanks for your kind words regarding Appalachian Magazine. It’s a labor of love! Always great to hear positive feedback from folks who read and share our articles!

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