It is almost Halloween and as if to remind me, the grass outside my home is littered with beautiful red 'toadstools' and while I've been interested in fungi for more than quarter of a century, I still find myself wowed by the stunning size and beauty of the Fly Agaric (Aminata muscaria) mushroom with it's deep scarlet red cap, studded with tiny raised pieces of white, the remains of the fleshy cover that protects the growing mushroom.
I can't help but smile when I see a Fly Agaric; they remind me of all the wonderful stories of childhood including Alice In Wonderland and the many stories of faeries, often accompanied by beautiful illustrations of faerie houses built into the stems of these beautiful iconic mushrooms. And it fascinates me that this mushroom is so often illustrated in children's books, because while it is a stunningly beautiful mushroom, admirer beware! It is a potent and potentially dangerous mushroom that has played a wild role in our culture over the centuries.
It is called the Fly Agaric because since medieval times it has been used as a very effective insecticide. The pretty red cap was broken into bowls of milk, which would attract flies that would then be stupified by the chemicals released into the milk from the mushroom. Ingenious. But of course it is the effect on humans which has us most fascinated, not least because it is a strong hallucinogen and intoxicant, the uses of which the Lapp folk in particular are familiar with. Amusingly it's thought the Lapplanders may have followed the lead of their native deer, who love to eat this fungus and actively seek it out; it has a similar effect on the deer as it does on us humans! As well as ingesting the dried aminata cap, the Laplanders also figured out the hallucinogenic compounds are concentrated in the deer's urine,which they somehow manage to collect and drink. Because I am compelled to try and imagine just how you go about collecting wild deer urine, my mind will be useless for the rest of the day.
How Does It Work?
Fly Agaric contains two specific compounds, Ibotenic acid and muscimol, both of which have powerful hallucinogenic properties that have proved irresistible to humans over the centuries. The concentrations of these compounds vary according to season and age of the mushroom. Mmst ibotenic acid is found in the coloured skin og the mushroom cap, it's an unstable compounds which rapidly degrades during drying to form muscimol which is significantly more potent than ibotenic acid. As concentrations vary significantly between individual mushrooms, ingestion can result in wildly unpredictable outcomes, with some people suffering no effects at one end of the scale to known deaths at the other end of the scale.
For those consumers who fall between the two extremes, symptoms of ingestion usually occur between 20 minutes to 2 hours later, the central nervous system is affected such that the muscles of the intoxicated person begin to twitch convulsively, there follows dizziness and a death-like sleep. It is during this state of stupor the person experiences the characteristically vivid visions and once they wake up they are usually filled with feelings of elation. Because their nervous system is highly stimulated they are also usually very active physically, often with highly exaggerated movements.
Witches Understood The Potency
It is not a coincidence that the Aminata mushrooms look at their very best close to Halloween when witches are supposed to fly through the night sky on a broomstick. The Aminata's hallucinogenic properties were well known to British witches and used to staggering effect along with the tropane alkaloids found in species of plants such as deadly nightshade (tropa belladonna) and Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). Like so many things in life, there is a price to be paid for the pleasures these erstwhile witches sought, as ingestion of even a small amount of the alkaloidal hallucinogens can cause severe nausea, an unpleasant distraction when one is trying to soar on a narcotic high. These canny lasses were not to be deterred and realising the hallucinogenic compounds can be extracted from the mushrooms and plant tissues and mixed into an ointment allowing absorption via the skin and membranes, a new and rather entertaining method of application was invented to transport the compounds into their bodies. The earliest clue to the innovative application methods comes from writings about the investigation of Lady Alice Kytelera a renowned English witch who in 1324 was accused of poisoning her many husbands:
“In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.”The fifteenth-century medieval writer Jordanes de Bergamo wrote: ‘But the vulgar believe, and the witches confess, that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places.’
There you go, I bet you'll never look at a witch on a broomstick in quite the same way. Do keep a look out for these spectacular mushrooms, don't kick them over or tread on them, they're extremely beautiful, and so long as you don't eat them, they'll do you no harm.
For further information about fungi, I suggest you check out the British Mycological Society's website and indulge yourself in these two cracking books:
Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe, by Roger Phillips