Amanita muscaria is the Toadstool of fairy tales and imagination and that is a good starting place but it is much, much more than that.
This was probably the first fungi that I learnt to identify, that makes it the one that I have loved the longest and the hardest one to write about but I will do my best.
Probably the most important and most wonderful thing to talk about is what it is and why it is in the wood. Then there are the stories and the folk lore and the uses that men have found for it.
Let’s start with identification.
The Fly Agaric mushroom comes into this world as a little white knobbly thing that you probably wouldn’t recognise.
If you cut one open now you will just be able to see the line of colour that is going to be the red cap.
The white veil that covered the mushroom was called the “universal veil”, there is a second veil under the cap that protects the gills as they develop, this is called the “partial veil”. As the mushroom grows the partial veil detaches itself from the outer edge of the cap and falls down onto the central stem to form the characteristic ring.
At the base of the stem there is a cup like structure that the mushroom seems to sit in, this is called the volva and it is usually topped with a couple of rings which are remnants of the universal veil.
Well I have written quite a bit on how to identify the easiest mushroom in the world next I want to tell you about what it is doing in the forest.
Fly Agaric is a mycorrhizal fungi and finding that fact was the one thing that really started and/or changed my interest and understanding of nature, it was momentous for me.
I was always interested in wild life but now I started looking at nature as a whole thing, there is an interdependence where everything works together and is connected and that is my interest. And I see that after all these years I am no better at explaining this than when I first started.
Fungi do all sorts of jobs in the world, some break down dead matter and some are parasites, they have many roles and they are not just for getting hippies high.
Fly Agaric is a mycorrhizal fungi. A difficult word to spell it is easy to say “mica-rizal”. It means that the fungi has a symbiotic relationship with another species in this case it is usually Birch trees. (Also conifers)
The Mushroom that you see is just the fruit of a much larger organism. The bulk of the fungi is underground. It’s body is made up of a lot of little thread like structures called hyphae and collectively known as the mycellium.
The hyphae become physically connected with the roots of the tree and they exchange things that the other can not provide for itself. It is mutually beneficial. The fungi can access phosphates in the soil that the tree can not reach and it exchanges these along with water and other mineral nutrients for a supply of carbohydrates, glucose and sucrose that the plant manufactures through photosynthesis, something the fungi can not do. Cool.
Finding out about this helped me to develop my understanding of what ancient woodland is, it is not trees.
Technically Ancient Woodland in the UK is land that can be shown to have been wooded for the last 400 years. That is as far back as our records go. Land that was woodland 400 years ago is probably woodland that developed naturally and may have been woodland for thousands of years. It is an irreplaceable resource.
It means that the land has never been disturbed, it has never been put to the plough and there is a lot going on under the ground in ancient woodland.
Most plants benefit from some sort of mycorrhizal relationship it is not just Birch and Fly Agaric. Scientists haven’t tested every plant on the planet but of those they have 95% have turned out to have a mycorrhizal relationship.
The whole world of nature is bonding and working together like a single giant organism with millions of different little components and the pink monkeys that strut around on the surface proclaiming their lordship are not really getting it.
As a pink monkey myself I am not seeking to understand it, I won’t live long enough to do that. I am just looking at it and loving it, like you might watch and enjoy a good movie.
I expect that you want to know about the drugs.
Fly Agaric is a powerful hallucinogenic. I am not going to write about the compounds that the fungi contains or the specifics because you can look that up but more importantly cave men didn’t need to know that. Men have always known about Fly Agaric and it has history and lore that goes much further back than any of us can remember.
Most commonly Fly Agaric is associated with spiritualism or religion in one form or another. It has long been used to invoke a trance like state and to dream of other worlds.
If you want to use Fly Agaric as a recreational drug then you should talk to Frank. It is considered poisonous and it has nasty side effects.
I know that I am not your dad but there are much easier, safer and better ways to get high, if that is what you want to do and with less vomiting.
The best way to consume Fly Agaric is to feed it to your Reindeer and then drink the animals urine. People have been doing this for a very long time and it works. (You can not substitute a domestic pet for the Reindeer!) The animals body will filter out the impurities that cause the vomiting and it will be a much more pleasant experience.
Failing that and if you don’t have a Reindeer then drinking your Shaman’s urine after he has consumed the fungi will work just as well.
The next bit is for Shaman only. NO HIPPIES!
(I was born in the 1950’s and have long grey hair, work it out)
(No I wasn’t at Woodstock man)
Fly Agaric is best consumed after it has been dried and swallowed without chewing. Drying the fungi increases it’s hallucinogenic potency by about five times and the potency is in the skin of the cap.
About twenty minutes after swallowing it your muscles will start to twitch and spasm and that will be followed by dizziness and a trance like state which I have seen described as a death like sleep. You will vomit out the mushrooms but that doesn’t matter. During this sleep you will have vivid and believable dreams and then you will wake feeling elated. People have been aware of this property of the mushroom for a very long time and they have been putting their own interpretation on what it all means.
Other people just used it for recreation and I mean cave men, our ancestors. The fungi is an intoxicant and not everybody is religious, not by a long shot.
Fly Agaric for me is one of the big ones. It is one of my Seven Wonders of the World. Right up there with the English Oak and the Wild Boar and Bramble. I shouldn’t really have tried to write about it yet. It is just too big a subject to cover in one post and I will never do it well.
But if we are going to have fungi then let’s have great fungi. I am looking forward to showing you how to start a fire with Cramp Balls and how to cook a Parasol in the jungle. It is a big world. Later.