Amanita muscaria is one of the most recognized mushrooms in the world, frequently photographed and illustrated, it’s the typical mushroom seen in fairy tale books and movies. It gets its common name “Fly agaric” from being used as an insecticide by being mixed in with a bowl of milk to kill flies.
Amanita muscaria is generally considered both a poisonous mushroom and “magic mushroom”, as it can contain chemicals that cause psychoactive effects when ingested.
Amanita muscaria photographed on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
The fly agaric is one of the easiest mushrooms to identify when mature. As the mushroom starts growing, it emerges from the ground resembling a small white egg. At this point, it is difficult to identify as other members of the Amanita family will emerge from the ground looking the same, including the deadly poisonous ones like the death cap.
As the mushroom grows, the cap will show an orange-yellow skin under the white surface of the veil top that covers it. The cap will eventually break through the veil, showing a yellow-orange to bright red surface. The white shots, commonly called warts on the surface of the cap are remnants of the veil.
When A. muscaria is fully grown, the cap can be anywhere from 6 to 24 cm in diameter and it will keep the yellow-orange to bright red colors seen in its earlier stage. The cap will commonly grow to a saucer like shape when fully developed. The white spots can sometimes be mostly missing on mature Amanita’s due to heavy rains washing them off. The gills are not attached to the stem, clustered and white in color.
The stem is white, tapering to a base into a bulb like shape. It’s usually 6-17 cm in length and 1.5-4 cm thick. Partial remnants of the veil can be found on the stems surface.
The spore print of Amanita muscaria is white and you should therefore use darker paper when taking it.
Some Amanita muscaria's can be much lighter in color than the common bright red
A. muscaria is found throughout the forested areas of the world, fruiting in late summer to early winter, depending on the climate. This fungus needs to form a symbiotic partnership with trees to grow. It can regularly be found under or near spruce, fir, birch, and cedar trees. Amanita muscaria seems to especially prefer pine trees.
This mushroom is normally found in loose groups, sometime in clusters of 2-4 mushrooms.
The Fly Agaric can contain the psychoactive compounds: ibotenic acid, muscimol, muscazone and muscarine and is deemed a “magic mushroom”, although the psychoactive chemicals are different than those contained in psychedelic mushrooms of the Psilocybe genus, and should not be confused.
The psychoactive compounds are also considered to be poisonous and can produce nausea, drowsiness, sweating, auditory and visual distortions, euphoria, relaxation, ataxia, and loss of equilibrium. These effects can vary greatly depending on the amount consumed and the individual. Historically, deaths have been reported, but the North American Mycological Association has reported there are no reliably documented fatalities in the past 100 years.
Quantities of the psychoactive compounds found in Amanita muscaria can fluctuate significantly (10 fold or more) depending on the season and geographical location of the mushrooms.
It should also be noted that many have stated that this mushroom can be made edible by boiling it and discarding the liquid, as the toxins are water soluble and will be removed with the water.
Fly agaric has one of the richest and most diverse histories, when comes to man’s interactions with mushrooms.
It been used for shamanic practices, possibility dating as early as 10 000 BC by some accounts.
In Siberia, it was extensively used in religious practices by the indigenous people. Some tribes would drink the urine of shaman, after he consumed the mushroom. The urine would contain the psychoactive chemicals and the psychoactive effects would then be passed along to the rest of the tribe.
It has also been reported that the rain deer of the Siberian area where attracted to the mushroom. The local people note the intoxicated behaviour and slaughter the animals to achieve the psychoactive effects by eating the meat.
In India, Amanita muscaria is widely accepted to be the mysterious brew Soma, written about in ancient Indian texts, between 1700–1100 BC.
Amanita muscaria has also long been a part of Christian winter and Christmas celebrations. The dried fly agaric bulb was once used as decorations on Christmas trees. Today, replica amanita muscaria decorations can still be found on Christmas trees and wreaths, while the mushrooms image can be found on many Christmas and New Year’s cards.
Recently, it has been suggested that the red and white colors of Christmas and Santa Clause were based after the colors of the mushroom.
Lastly, it’s thought that the effects experienced by Alice eating the mushroom in Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s novel, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are based after the psychoactive effects of Amanita muscaria.