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Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Has a distinctive appearance and is both toxic and hallucinogenic. A tasty warm drink may seem like an easy way to get 'high' but are you really that desperate?
Read more about Amanita muscaria, fly agaric, in these blog
Two radio programmes on the same day talk about the stories of fly agaric
A Remembrance Day look at plants associated with war and soldiers
A programme on fungi tells a small part of the story of Amanita muscaria
Has it been a bad year for mushrooms?
Fungi seem to be early this year
The mature Amanita muscaria forms a bowl
Meaning of the Name
Possibly from the Greek ‘amanitai’, ‘a fungus with no detail’ or, more possibly, from Amanon a mountain in Cilicia, now part of Turkey.
From the Latin ‘musca’, ‘fly’ said to be because the mature cap turns upward forming a bowl which, filled with milk, was used as a flytrap.
Common Names and Synonyms
fly agaric, fly amanita, fly mushroom
How Poisonous, How Harmful?
The colourful appearance of the cap makes fly agaric a favourite in children's stories, playrooms and nurseries.
These unusually coloured fungi contain ibotenic acid and muscimol which are strongly psychoactive and can cause very rapid heartbeat and a drying in the mouth. Large amounts are claimed to be capable of producing fatal convulsions though I have not found any case reports to substantiate this.
In particular, the active components affect the part of the brain dealing with fear. Use of the mushroom to get 'high' can lead users to place themselves in danger because of their perceived invincibility.
Watch a Video about Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
This section used to state that there were a number of poisoning incidents linked to Amanita muscaria including deaths. Further research suggests that most of these cases refer to other species of Amanita and, even then, consequences have not been severe.
The 1896 death of the Count de Vecchi within an hour of eating Amanita muscaria is the most commonly cited fatal case but there are indications that the count was already seriously ill and that the fungi may have played little or no part in his death.
Folklore and Facts
An unusual feature of ibotenic acid is that a large proportion of any ingested is excreted in the urine. The urine of someone who has eaten fly agaric mushrooms becomes psychoactive itself within about an hour of ingestion.
For the Koryak people of the Kamchatka Peninsula, fly agaric was the only mind altering substance available, and then not in great quantities. They discovered that, if fresh mushrooms were in short supply, a second 'high' could be obtained by drinking urine, not necessarily your own. It was an act of hospitality to offer a visitor a glass of something warm if fresh fungus was not to hand.
In rituals, the order of rank of the tribe was reinforced by the ingestion of fresh mushrooms by the headman followed by progressive drinking of urine down through the social structure. It is not known if the urine retains its effects through repeated 'recycling' in this way but the junior members of the tribe would almost certainly have exhibited similar behaviour to avoid giving offence to someone from a higher level.
It is generally believed that consumption of this fungus produces fearlessness and it was used by the Vikings to make some of them the much feared warriors whose unrestrained fighting is still commemorated today in the word 'berserk'. This suggestion was first made in the 18th century but there are no contemporary references to this practice in the 11th century.
Fly agaric is said to be what enables reindeer to fly on Christmas Eve. The BBC's 'Weird Nature' series had a piece about this and you can see this on the BBC's official YouTube channel. It would be nice to believe that Father Christmas wears red and white because of the colour of the mushroom. Sadly, Santa's outfit has much less romantic origins; in the 1930s an advertising executive for Coca Cola chose red to match the product colour leading to an end to Santa's depiction in others colours in addition to red, notably green.
Concern has been expressed recently that, following the classification of Psilocybe semilanceata, magic mushrooms, as Class A under the Misuse of Drugs Act, more people are turning to Amanita muscaria for recreational purposes and suffering as a result of its greater toxicity compared to the controlled fungi.
Because of its psychoactive properties, but more especially as an example of the lengths the human race will go to to get high, Amanita muscaria features in the Phantastica section of The Poison Garden website.