One of the most iconic, magical and frequently drawn fungi is surely the beguiling Fly Agaric. Standing proud in the forest like a radiant flame amongst dead leaves and decaying logs, Fly Agaric was so named not for its witchy use in flying recipes, but because it was used to deter flies. Their red caps offer an unmistakable splash of colour against the green and brown pallet of the forest. It has been used throughout the ages and around the world for its hallucinogenic properties, usually as an entheogen (meaning ‘generating the divine within’) for religious, shamanic and spiritual purposes and has strong connections to mythology and fairy tales.
“Fungi are changing the way that life happens, as they have done for a billion years. They are eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing and killing plants, surviving in space, inducing visions, producing food, making medicines, manipulating animal behaviour and influencing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere. Fungi provide a key to understanding the planet on which we live.” M. Sheldrake, (‘How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures’)
Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) appears between August and November and is fond of the ground beneath birches, larches and firs. The red cap (up to 20 cm across) is so distinctive with its white spots (warts) their white stems are hollow, which, if you need it, can act as an identifier.
Within the Amanita genus, there are over 50 species, some of which are toxic, and some hallucinogenic. It’s thought that humans first discovered the psychotropic actions of this fungi in Siberia, byobserving the way reindeer behaved after eating it. It has a rather enigmatic past, for example, some believe it is the mysterious ‘Soma,’ the ancient Vedic ritual drink. And Fly Agaric was treated with much secrecy by the ancient Egyptians (who highly prized it) that they didn’t actually have a name incommon use for it. There are colourful theories that Christianity secretly revolves around Fly Agaric, with Jesus being the code name for the fungi, and that the fungi are the Holy Grail.
The Siberian’s, after watching their reindeer, became great utilisers of the Fly Agaric. They used it to communicate with the dead, during divinations, they used it to ease hard labour and to promote dreaming and euphoria. Used as a dream-fungus, Fly Agaric was reported to offer much healing and insight through the dreams it produced.
Research suggests that it’s an incredibly deep sleep that the fungus produces, after those dreams that left people feeling much better. However, some of the reports of the effects ofconsuming Fly Agaric don’t make it seem like you would feel much better. Consumption is frequently followed by nausea and often prolonged vomiting, followed by sleep, and then by hallucinations. Yet other reports suggest that no nausea or vomitingoccurs, just hallucinations, followed by the famed dreamy deep sleep.
Fly Agaric is one of the psychotropics that relies on amino acid derivatives. In this case, the major active constituents are muscimol and ibotenic acid. Muscimol, an impressive psychoactive, interacts with GABA receptors and has a depressant effect on the nervous system. When this fungus is dried, it becomes more potent because the ibotenic acid is converted into muscimol. Ibotenic acid interacts with glutamic acid receptors, which excites the nervous system. It is very similar in structure to the neurotransmitter glutamate. It is also an agonist at group l and group llmetabotropic glutamate receptors, is an important NMDA glutamate receptor agonist, and it increases the release of glutamate. Interestingly, these depressant and excitatory effects, when we know that the fungus is associated with both hallucinations and deep sleep. Other active constituents within the fungi include muscarine, muscazone and 4-hydroxy-2-pyrrolidone. Muscarin is an agonist at muscarinic acetylcholine receptors (and indeed the receptor was named after this fungus!)
Though constituents like the ibotenic acid are known neurotoxins, accidental fatality isn’t generally linked to this fungus (as a fatal dose would involve consuming around 15 fungi), but poisoning certainly is,especially in children who have eaten the alluringly red fruiting body, and by those who have taken the fungi recreationally. It has also been mistaken for an edible mushroom and accidentally consumed that way. This is likely to occur when fungi are immature, as it resembles a puffball, and in heavy rain, warts can rinse away, leaving a red cap that could be mistaken for the edible Caesar’s mushroom (particularly in those Fly Agaric that have a more orangey-yellow colour, rather than the well-known redcolouration.
Fly Agaric can be very unpredictable due to fluctuating active constituent levels across different parts of the fungi, and as a result of environmental factors like growing conditions and the weather, as well as the change of season. During the first month, you are likely to experience nausea and vomiting, but during thefollowing period, the hallucinatory properties are much enhanced. It is therefore very difficult to accurately and safely dose this fungus.
An up to date identification book is a necessity if you’re considering foraging for your own fungi. Better yet, finding a local guide who can assist you and give you one to one tuition is by far the best way to learn. Over the past decade, several fungi have shifted categories, from safe to eat, to potentially toxic, and new species of fungi continue to be foundand identified.
Enjoy reading about the Fly Agaric? Check out BioWeb’s other Natural History articles:
Artwork by Vivi Sterling Instagram @vivisterling who is open for commissions
G. Dann, ‘Edible Mushrooms: A Forager’s Guide to the Wild Fungi of Britain and Europe’, Hreen Books, 2016
K. M. Feeney, ‘Fly Agaric: A Compendium of History, Pharmacology, Mythology, & Exploration’, Fly Agaric Press, 2020
P.Jordan, ‘The Mushroom Guide and Identifier: The Ultimate Guide to Identifying, Picking And Using Mushrooms’, Hermes House, 2000
L. Schwartzberg, ‘Fantastic Fungi: How Mushrooms Can Heal, Shift Consciousness, and Save the Planet: Expanding Consciousness, Alternative Healing, Environmental Impact’ Earth Aware Editions; Illustrated editions, 2019
M. Sheldrake, ‘Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures’ Bodley Head, 2020
P. Sterry, ‘Collins Complete British Mushrooms and Toadstools: The essential photograph guide to Britain’s fungi’ (Collins Complete Guides) 2009