Top 10 Facts: Fly Agaric

InfamousAmantia muscaria is one of the most recognisable fungi in the world. A recent study by European scientists, during which subjects were shown images of various mushrooms, found that respondents successfully identified the species on 96% of occasions. Common, white forms of fungi were successfully identified by only 53% of participants.

Romanticised. The red and white spotted toadstool is rife in popular culture. So much so that garden ornaments and children’s books often depict gnomes and fairies [even Smurfs] using Fly Agaric as a home or seat. The mushroom features strongly in the video game series Super Mario Bros– specifically used as a power-up item – and, perhaps more famously, featured in the dancing mushroom sequence in the 1940 Disney flick, Fantasia. Perhaps this explains it’s global recognition.

Toxicity. Fly Agaric contains several biologically active agents. One of these, Ibotenic Acid, is a known neurotoxin; while another, muscimol, is a powerful psychoactive. When ingested, the former serves to intensify the effect of the latter. A fatal dose of agaric has been calculated as 15 caps but, despite dramatisation in historical texts, fatal poisonings are extremely rare. The North American Mycological Association has stated that there were: no reliably documented cases of death from these mushrooms in the past 100 years.

Nasty side-effects. It is not recommended that you consume Fly Agaric, and side-effects of consumption are known to include nausea, drowsiness, muscle spasms, low blood pressure, hallucinations and loss of balance. In extreme cases, seizures and coma have been recorded. Symptoms typically appear between 30-90 minutes after consumption and peak within three hours, although many unlucky souls have reported ‘piercing headaches’ for many days after.

Those SiberiansAmanita muscaria was widely used as an entheogen [psychoactive] by many indigenous peoples in Siberia. In Western parts, its use was mainly restricted to shamans who used the fungi as a means of inducing a trance-like state; while its use in Eastern parts was traditionally more recreational. Here, shamans would take the mushrooms and others would drink their urine: with internal processes serving both to amplify the potency of the mushroom as a psychoactive, and to reduce its harmful toxicity.

‘Fly’ Agaric. The name Fly Agaric stems from the use of this fungi as an insecticide in some parts of Europe, including England and Germany. Often it’s cap was broken up and sprinkled into milk so to form an irresistible, yet deadly, trap for flying insects. The species use as an insecticide was first recorded by Albertus Magnus in his work De vegetabilibus around 1256. Recent research has shown this particular old wives tale to be true, and the famed fly-killer is now known to be Ibotenic Acid.

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Berserker myths. Many texts, television shows and even blog posts buy into the historical depiction of Vikings as routine Amanita muscaria users. Specifically, Viking Berserkers who were rumoured to consume the fungi prior to battle – to induce a state of unrivalled ferocity. A notion first suggested by Swedish professor Samuel Ödmann in 1784.  There are, however, no contemporary sources that mention this use or anything similar in their description of berserkers. It may just be made up…

Symbiosis. This fungus has a symbiotic association with birch and pine trees – meaning that both the host tree and the fungi derive benefits from a close association. In this instance, the fungal mycelium ferries nutrients into the tree roots and, in return, receives important sugars from the tree’s photosynthesis of sunlight.

Chameleon. The characteristic red colour of Fly Agaric may fade after rain or in older mushrooms – lending the toadstool a washed out, orange appearance. The famous white spots on the cap, visible after emergence from the ground, are also easily displaced. These are remnants of the universal veil, a membrane that encloses the entire mushroom when it is still very young.

Varieties. Contrary to popular depictions, two additional forms of Fly Agaric are known to occur in Britain. These are Amanita muscaria var. aureola, boasting a vibrant orange-yellow cap, and Muscaria var. Formosa which is a rather rare brown or yellow-brown form sporting a slightly tinted veil. Both of these are seldom seen and those lucky enough to stumble across them on their fungal forays should count themselves lucky.


For more from the author, you can follow his personal blog at commonbynature.co.uk or join him on Twitter at @CommonByNature

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James Common
James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at commonbynature.co.uk, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.

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