kanji, waraitake, laughing mushroom Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for April 2005

Gymnopilus spectabilis, the Waraitake or Big Laughing Gym, a hallucinogenic mushroom

by Kelsea Jewell and Tom Volk

It's my 100th Fungus of the Month!

Please click TomVolkFungi.net for the rest of Tom Volk's pages on fungi

Gymnopilus spectabilis

April is notorious for its fools and laughter, and this month's fungus, Gymnopilus spectabilis (Fr.) A. H. Smith, is known to its friends "Big Laughing Jim (Gym)."   This fairly common mushroom is a good-natured sort that hopefully will not play a role in your April 1st antics!  If you like colorful mushrooms containing legally regulated chemicals, then Gymnopilus spectabilis is a fungus worthy of your attention.

Gymnopilus spectabilis is best left as a quiet decoration of the forest; this glorious mushroom has been classified as ranging in color from buff-yellow to a deep chrome, xanthine orange, antimony orange, Sudan brown, and raw sienna to whitish.  Unless you are a painter many of those colors may be unfamiliar to you, but if you imagine a bright pumpkin or sunflower you will be in the right range. Gymnopilus luteus Other species of Gymnopilus are not quite as bright, such as Gymnopilus luteus, the pale mushroom seen at right. Determining species of Gymnopilus is actually quite difficult, another reason to avoid their use. Overall, G. spectabilis is a thick, fleshy mushroom that that likes to grow in clusters on wood, This habit can sometimes cause confusion, since the wood can be: living, dead, hardwood, coniferous, free-standing, or buried. Fallen wood can be hidden by leaf litter, and it should never be assumed without careful investigation that a mushroom growing on the forest floor is a soil, and not a wood-decay, fungus.

The gills of G. spectabilisare just as bright and lovely as the rest of the fruiting body.  They are bright yellow (although they can be darkened by the loads of spores) and attached to the stalk, often running slightly down it in a decurrent spore print of Gymnopiluspattern. In youth these gills are covered and protected by a pale yellow partial veil that soon ruptures and can remain on the stalk. The spores are orange-brown, and tend to liberally coat any adjacent surface. In the image at left you should note the spore deposits all over the leaf litter underneath a single mushroom! Gymnopilus spectabilis can be found just about anywhere in North America after the spring rains and before the winter frost.

There are a few species that bear similarities to G. spectabilis: members of Armillaria and Omphalotus are the most easily confused with it, although both genera have fruiting bodies with white spore prints. All three of these genera include mushrooms that grow on wood in clusters, and can have an orange cast to their rather fleshy bodies. Careful identification is always important, especially so in cases where some of the mushrooms involved can cause minor to serious cases of mushroom poisoning. For example, Armillaria mellea is the common, and edible, honey mushroom, and can also have the remnants of a partial veil clinging to its stalk. O. olearius, the jack-o-lantern mushroom, is a poisonous species that never has a veil.  Both of these possible doppelgangers share a white to cream spore print as opposed to the richly orange spores of G. spectabilis, making confusion more likely in the field than once picked and carried home.

Even if you have an orange-tinted, wood-growing mushroom with some kind of rusty spores it may not be Gymnopilus spectabilis, even if it is in the Gymnopilus genus.  Or, worst of all, what if you happen to have a particularly robust and bright specimen of Galerina autumnalis?  That deadly mushroom is yellow-brown to tawny, has attached to slightly decurrent gills, and rusty-brown spores.  Even worse, it grows on decaying wood and has a thin partial veil.  Add to all of that the noxious production of the same toxins associated with Amanita poisoning, the amatoxins, which have a fatality rate of about 50 % (Arora 1986)!  It is never safe to play around with mushrooms that you have not positively, absolutely identified, and Gymnopilus spectabilis is not one you should be playing around with anyway!

For those of you interested in fungal nomenclature history, you may enjoy the knowledge that the genus of Gymnopilus is composed of species that were once placed in Flammula, Pholiota, Naucoria, and Cortinarius.  Originally, as with all gilled fungi, it was placed in the genus Agaricus by the great, if slightly misguided, mycologist Fries in 1821.  It was at least separated out by placement in the subgenus Cortinarius, tribe Dermocybe.  Categories rose and fell in rapid succession as the mycologists of the day attempted to create a usable Unified Theory of Everything, and the fungus soon to be known as Gymnopilus shifted with them.

Finally, the genus of Gymnopilus itself came into existence in 1879, when the mycologist P. Karsten proposed it, and now includes mushrooms that have yellowish or rusty spores and sometimes a veil (Hesler 1969). Gymnopilus currently belongs to the family Cortinariaceae, which is notorious for its difficult to identify mushrooms bearing some shade of brown spores and growing in forests.  If you want to know even more about the wild and wooly world of fungal nomenclature, I suggest that you take a moment to review the FotM for October 2004, Hydnum umbilicatum.  By the time you get through that you may marvel at the relative simplicity of recursive loops, the Federal income tax code, and trying to organize your belly-button lint collection by color, age, and texture.

Gymnopilus spectabilis is incredibly bitter to the taste, but considered inedible for far more interesting reasons; psilocybin and psilocin have both been found in the mushrooms.  These compounds are commonly known as hallucinogens, and are what gives rise to a variety of nicknames involving the term "laughing."  In fact, this is one of two mushrooms that in Japan earned the title of waraitake, whose kanji (symbols in Japanese representing ideas or words) literally translate as "laughing mushroom" (the other being Panaeolus papilionaceus (Bull.:Fr.) Quel., which can also contain psilocybin and serotonin) (Arora 1986, Takahashi 2004).  Although we don't have a reference for it here, Kelsea remembers reading a book of Japanese folktales as an undergraduate that included a story about waraitake.  In it, a group of Buddhist nuns and priests accidentally ate a patch of the waraitake, and uncontrollably went dancing and laughing through the town!

Japanese characters for waraitake
Figure 1. According to Jim Breen's on-line Japanese dictionary, waraitake means simply a "poisonous mushroom," although the individual kanji shown translate separately as "laughing" and "mushroom"

The discussion of hallucinogens is always a delicate topic in academic mycology.  Treated as a chemical interaction in human systems, however, they are a fascinating area of study.  The following information comes from Richard Schultes and Albert Hofman's The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens (1980), although much of it can also be found scattered among organic and biochemistry textbooks.  As mentioned previously, the compounds that can be found in G. spectabilis (and note that not all contain them in measurable quantities) are psilocybin and psilocin.  Specifically, they are both N-methylated tryptamines, where psilocybin is 4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine and psilocin is 4-hydroxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine.  What do those names mean?  They simply describe the structures, which can be seen in the figures below.

Psilocybin structure in 3D and skeletal views

Figure 2. Psilocybin structure in 3D and skeletal views.  The color code is: gray = carbon, light blue = hydrogen, dark blue = nitrogen, purple = phosphorus, red = oxygen, and pink = free electrons

Psilocin structure in 3D and skeletal view

Figure 3. Psilocin structure in 3D and skeletal view.  The color code is: gray = carbon, light blue = hydrogen, dark blue = nitrogen, red = oxygen, and pink = free electrons


Psilocin is usually in extremely low concentration, if present at all, in G. spectabilis, and is a dephosphorylated psilocybin (note the major change between the two structure is the replacement of that large P and O group with a simple OH).  Ingested psilocybin is converted in human systems into psilocin by enzymatic dephosphorylation (i.e. the removal of a phosphate group).

In pure form, both compounds are crystals, but psilocybin is stable and readily soluble in water while psilocin is prone to oxidation (the removal of an electron) and is poorly soluble in water.  The dose at which 50 % of test organisms die (LD50) for psilocybin is quite low at 280 mg/kg for mice, and theoretically the same values would apply to humans.  The psilocybin content in mushrooms is very, very low, and as Schultes and Hofman write, "[the] synthetic production of psilocybin is a much more rational operation than the isolation of it from the mushrooms (75)."  And, yes, they give the reaction scheme, but before you get too excited be aware that there are two steps using palladium and one with lithium!

Before running out into the woods, the potential April Fool practitioner should stop and consider the ramifications of messing with wild mushrooms as a part of any prank.  Assuming, first of all, that you have correctly identified your mushroom.  Recall that there are several unpleasantly similar mushrooms that could end in an emergency room visit or the cemetery!  Poisoning symptoms associated with psilocybin and psilocin include heightened color perception, visual distortions, hilarity (hence, "big laughing Gym"), rage or mood swings, and hallucinations.  Side effects can include nausea, vomiting, incarceration, and hospitalization due to the consumption of misidentified mushrooms.  If you are interested in the literature behind these compounds, I suggest that you read the works by Lincoff and Mitchel (1977), the rest of Schultes and Hofman's book, and Bresinsky and Besl (1990).  Possibly toxic mushrooms should never be played with for any reason!

"May your April pass in peace without any complications from Big Laughing Gym!  With luck the rains will come, and the next time you are in the woods you can enjoy the vibrant hues of Gymnopilus spectabilis gracing a stump.  And leave them there."

---Kelsea Jewell

Works cited

  • Arora, D.  1986.  Mushrooms Demystified: a Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi.  Second ed.  Ten Speed, Berkeley.
  • Bresinsky, M. and H. Besl.  1990.  A Colour Atlas of Poisonous Fungi.  Wolfe Publishing, London.
  • Hesler, L. R.  1969.  Mycologia Memoir No. 3.: North American Species of Gymnopilus.  Hafner, New York.
  • Lincoff, G. and D. J. Mitchel.  1977.  Toxic and Hallucinogenic Mushroom Poisoning.  Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.
  • Schultes, R. E. and A. Hofmann.  1980.  The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens.  Second ed.  Charles C. Thomas, Springfield.
  • Takahashi, H.  Last updated June 19, 2004. Accessed Oct. 21, 2004.  <www.cx.sakura.ne.jp/>

    We hope you enjoyed learning about Gymnopilus spectabilis, its relatives and potential uses. Obligate Disclaimer: This web page in no way encourages or supports the use of controlled or illegal drugs.You're taking big chances if you try to eat Gymnopilus.

    Kelsea Jewell  Yes that is beer in one hand and wine in the other... This month's co-author is Kelsea Jewell, one of my graduate students in Mycology. She's originally from Olympia, Washington and has a 2002 bachelor's degree in Chemistry from Scripps College in southern California. She's working on an interesting project looking for a biological control of yeast infections caused by Candida albicans.

    If you have anything to add, or if you have corrections, comments, or recommendations for future FotM's (or maybe you'd like to be co-author of a FotM?), please write to me at volk.thom@uwlax.edu

    This page and other pages are © Copyright 2005 by Thomas J. Volk, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

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