Red Amanita

Fairytale Fungus – The Fly Agaric

It’s always nice to come across one of the most loved of all toadstools. I’m of course talking of the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria). Most probably you will recall first seeing them depicted in your favourite childhood nursery rhyme or fairytale (or even in a so called ‘Mario’ video game).

Amanita muscaria ToadstoolIt was interesting to discover that they were traditionally used as a fly killer by the people of Slovenia (also England and Sweden). Chopped up flesh chunks were placed in saucers of milk or water, which would then release psychoactive compounds, deadly to any fly or bug foolish enough to take the bait. Some consider this story debatable, but one thing for sure is that the iconic and cultural history of this famous toadstool go back a long way, having deep routes in religion, spirituality, and of course recreational use!

This mushroom is in the same genus as the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) but A.muscaria has a different make-up and is rarely fatal (many would have to be consumed). It is not, as some people think, The Magic Mushroom which most people have heard of. The actual Magic Mushroom or Liberty Cap is actually a Psilocybe species called Psilocybe semilanceata. Nevertheless, the Fly Agaric is indeed a famously noted and powerful hallucinogenic.

I’ve never felt the urge to experiment (either for culinary or recreational interest) as they do cause sickness, and in some cases produce some very alarming symptoms. However, there are some places in Europe where they still eat them, only after careful preparation (parboiling etc). Hmm! I’m still not sure.

The Fly Agaric contains a compound called ‘Muscarine’, which is one of the poisons found in other mushrooms from the Inocybe and Clitocybe genus, although they are in very small quantities here, hence the minimal reports of serious poisoning and/or deaths.

There are many active chemical compounds in the mushroom, but the main psychoactive agent is called muscimol. Its effect on the brain excites neural transmitters causing the hallucinogenic effects, which are very unpredictable and will differ from person to person.

But simply eating this mushroom out right rarely has the effect some people actually want. Yet somehow, somewhere, someone discovered how to get the results they were after – and that was to drink urine! That is, the urine of someone willing to consume the mushrooms in the first place. The psychoactive elements pass through into the urine, while all the other bad elements are all filtered out by the body. All you have to do then is take a drink! There would be minimal or no bad side effects and all the desired good effects – well, hopefully. Several cultures (past and present) have used this practice as a form of religious ritual, recreation and/or spiritually as an entheogen – meaning ‘generating the divine within’.

Whatever your stance is on the ‘use’ of this mushroom, there’s no doubt it is one of natures most interesting and beautiful species. And if you do find some this autumn (or late summer) be sure to look out for any Ceps (Boletus edulis) hanging around nearby – they sometimes will be growing in the same vicinity. Good luck.

Amanita muscaria Images

The Fly Agaric’s Red cap with white spots (veil remnants). Bottom: Notice that over time from weathering/rain etc. the cap can fade in colour and the white veil remnants can be washed off, as shown here.

Amanita muscaria

Two young Fly Agarics covered with remnants of the white veil.

Note: Bear in mind that extremely young examples of this mushroom growing up from the soil can appear like small white puffballs. There was a case of someone eating what they thought was a puffball, and experienced mild hallucinations but suffered no ill effect, just a bit of a scare!

QUICK ID TABLE: FLY AGARIC Amanita muscaria

CAP / FLESH

10-20cm across. Red with white ‘spotted’ veil remnants on the surface; these can wash off with rain and the colour fade to orange-red. Mature cap edge is grooved.

STEM

15-20cm x 1.5-2cm. With a grooved ring. Bulbous base with volva that has rings and scales.

GILLS / SPORE PRINT

White and free.
Spore Print: White (see how to take a spore print here).

HABITAT / SEASON

Woodland, mostly with birch; also pine and spruce. Late summer – early winter.

EDIBILITY

Poisonous, causing sickness. Contain hallucinogens.

The Genus AMANITA (Amanitas): Characteristics to look out for:

• All have some sort of Volva – a cup-like/sack-like structure at the base of the stem which is the remnant of the universal veil.
• When very young, while still in the universal veil they can look egg-like.
• Most species are often covered with ‘spotted’ veil remnants. These sometimes ‘wash off’.
• Most species have white/whitish gills.
• Be extra careful in identification (examining volva and stem ring if present) as this genus contain some deadly species.

9 replies
    • J C Harris
      J C Harris says:

      Hmm. Interesting read. The process of removing the toxins etc can be done but you never know how much is left. I know someone who had tried to eat these in order to get the psychoactive effects. It never worked. He just kept being very sick and he didn’t mention anything about the taste – I should have asked. Late summer – autumn, Fly Agarics grow in and around woodland with pine and birch. Be careful with your culinary adventure. Let me know if the flavour is worth it.

      Thanks
      John

      Reply
      • Tom Roe
        Tom Roe says:

        Me and a friend had half one of these a year ago not cooked. We will not die will we? Have you read/heard enough on them that would suggest not? Again, pretty sure im over-worrying/paranoid but I guess it’s just the fact they in same family as Death Cap and they can take a while to kick in. If they would have been fatal it would have happened much earlier? This the last message ill send about poisoning by the way I’m pretty sure I’ve had no other dodgy ones.

        …Its a shame, I’m really into mushrooms, have been for a couple years now but my carelessness along with reading certain things about possible poisonings has put the willys up me a bit and has even put me off them slightly now, but think I just need re-assuring that I’ll be ok. Maybe I need councelling more than anything, ha. I know you said you’re not a proper expert but be nice to just hear what you know at least.

        Reply
    • J C Harris
      J C Harris says:

      Hi Tom. You don’t need to worry. You will have to consume quite a few of these to become seriously ill (or anywhere close to death!). I know of people who’ve tried consuming them cooked and raw (in the hope of gaining some hallucinogenic effect), but only find they can’t keep them down and simply throw up! They’re still alive.

      Built up effects of poison mainly come from the Brown Roll-Rim (Paxillus involutus). The effects from poisonous Amanitas occur within 30mins – 2 hours and aren’t very pleasant (depending on which species, medical advice needs to be sought immediately).

      But you will get no more trouble from your small sample a year ago.

      Hope that eases your worries Tom.
      Thanks
      John

      Reply
  1. Anya
    Anya says:

    Do Fly Agaric mushrooms happen to grow in and around mosses? I am only able to find photos of them growing near trees and grass.

    Reply
    • J C Harris
      J C Harris says:

      To my knowledge (and my photo collection) I don’t think so (or at least its rarer). The Fly Agaric prefers acidic soil. Moss prefers acidic substrates rather than acidic soil itself. But let me know if you do see one in moss. Seems like an interesting challenge, so I’ll keep my eyes open.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *