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Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

Summary

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?

'Poisonous Plants 1-2-1' video

This short video summarising the story of fly agaric is just one of a series.

Family

Amanitaceae

A mature Amanita muscaria with upturned cap

The mature Amanita muscaria forms a bowl

Meaning of the Name

Amanita

Possibly from the Greek ‘amanitai’, ‘a fungus with no detail’ or, more possibly, from Amanon a mountain in Cilicia, now part of Turkey.

muscaria

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

Incidents

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.


Amanita muscaria growing in woodland

Amanita muscaria

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 is often said to have been 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 19th century but there are no contemporary references to this practice in the Nordic sagas.

In 2014, Kew Gardens ran a series of events on the theme of intoxication. Mike Jay was involved in one of them and reprinted an article he had written in 2003 entitled 'Mushrooms in Wonderland' giving the history of the history of the folklore about Amanita muscaria. 

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.

IMPORTANT NOTE

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Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
Salix alba, white willow
Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Verbascum olympicum, Greek mullein
Vinca major, greater periwinkle
Viscum album, mistletoe
Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree