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).
It 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.
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.
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.
HABITAT / SEASON
Woodland, mostly with birch; also pine and spruce. Late summer – early winter.
Poisonous, causing sickness. Containing 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.