On day 132 of 365 Days Wild I wandered down to the little woodland beside the pond where several new Fly Agaric toadstools have popped up through the leaf litter. It thought it was a perfect time to find out a little more about my favourite fungus.
Usually bright red in colour (though they can also be orange or yellow), with white gills and dotted with white wart-like speckles, the Fly Agaric is distinctive and, usually, quite easy to recognise, though there are a few similar and related species. At first they are globular in shape. They then mature into a hemispherical form, and finally into a flat plate-like shape. At full growth they usually range from 8-20cm in diameter and up to 30cm in height, though larger ones do occur.
The toadstools emerge from the ground looking like small white eggs, with the red becoming increasingly prominent as they grow. This is because the speckles are actually remnants of the universal veil, a membranous tissue that envelopes the immature toadstool and breaks apart as it increases in size. The bulb at the base of the stem is a remnant of this universal veil. The ring found higher up the stem is a remnant of the partial veil that covered the gills. After heavy rainfall you might occasionally find Fly Agarics that are entirely red, with no white, warty markings as the veil has been entirely washed away. It is at this time that the toadstool might be mistaken for the edible fungus Amanita caesarea.
The Fly Agaric is native throughout temperate and boreal regions of the Northern Hemisphere, including the UK, and has also been introduced to many Southern Hemisphere countries. This introduction was largely accidental and occured because the Fly Agaric exists symbiotically with various deciduous and coniferous trees, forming mycorrhizal associations, and has arrived with plantations of pine and birch in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It can be found fruiting in woodlands and heathlands that contain host trees from late summer through to early winter.
The name Fly Agaric is generally thought to be derived from the toadstool’s traditional use as an insecticide when sprinkled in milk. This use has been recorded in Germanic- and Slavic-speaking areas of Europe, as well as in pockets of France and Romania. The oldest written record dates back to 1256, when Alberus Magnus described it in his text, De vegetablis: “it is called the fly mushroom because it is powdered in milk to kill flies.” As well as its common name, the scientific name Amanita muscaria is also related to this use, as muscaria is from the latin word musca meaning ‘fly’.
An alternative interpretation of the term ‘fly’ is that it actually refers to the delirium caused by consuming the brightly coloured fungus. A popular medieval belief was that mental illnesses were caused by flies entering a person’s head. Other regional names from around Europe support this theory. In Catalan is is known as oriol foll, in Toulouse it is mujolo folo, in the Aveyron region of Southern France it is concourlo fouolo, and in Trevento in Italy it is ovolo matto. All of these names relate to madness.
Despite it’s toxicity, reports of death caused by consumption are rare. A fatal dose of the fungus has been calculated to be 15 caps, and the North American Mycological Association has stated that there were “no reliably documented cases of death from toxins in these mushrooms in the past 100 years.”
There are, however, occasional cases of sickness caused by the fungus. These cases are usually young children, or people who have ingested the mushroom for an hallucinogenic experience. It is eaten sometimes by accident by people who have mistaken it for an edible mushroom. In some parts of Europe, Asia and North America it is actially purposefully eaten, but only after it has been parboiled twice with the water drained and replaced. This process reduces the toxicity and breaks down the psychoactive substances.
Uses of the Fly Agaric for its psychoactive properties have been recorded in various countries throughout history. According to the Lithuanian historian, Marija Gimbutiene, in remote areas of Lithuania the mushrooms were mixed with vodka and consumed at wedding feasts. The toadstools were also exported from Lithuania to the Sami tribe in the far north, where they were used in shamanic rituals. They were also used by many of the indigenous people of Siberia, in some places just by shamans for religious purposes, but also sometimes by laypeople for purely recreational purposes. Sometimes the shaman, or the wealthiest people, would consume the mushroom and others would then drink their urine as it would contain the psychoactive substances. There are similar such traditional uses found across the native range of the toadstool.
It has been suggested that the Vikings used Amanita muscaria in order to produce their berserker rages, though unfortunately there are no contemporary sources to back this up. Similarly, it is thought that it was the main ingredient in the sacred hallucinogenic drink ‘soma’ used in India and Iran. This is debated mainly due to the lack of a detailed description of soma.
Nowadays, the Fly Agaric toadstool is possibly best known in relation to fairies, gnomes and pixies. These are frequently depicted sitting on or making their home inside the red-capped toadstools. This magical, fairytail connection is furthered in Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Th mushroom Alice eats that makes her shrink is thought to have been inspired by Amanita muscaria. One of its hallucinogenic effects is that the sizes of objects appears to shift and change.
If you would like to know more about the Fly Agaric toadstool, you could check out some of these pages: