Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for December 1999

This month's fungus is Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric.

Also be sure to look at some seasonal Christmas Fungi-- check out my popular and newly revamped
Fungi that are necessary for a merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!Merry Christmas! This month's fungus is an interesting one for many reasons. It is a very common mushroom in conifer areas all throughout the northern hemisphere. The color is highly variable, from bright red (A. muscaria var. muscaria), to orange to yellow (A. muscaria var. formosa) to white (A. muscaria var. alba), but there are always white patches on the cap-- remnants of the universal veil that covered the button stage. There seems to be a geographical distribution in North America, with the red form being found mostly in the west and deep south, the orange form in the midwest and east, the yellow form mostly in the east, and the white form reportedly scattered throughout the country. They can grow to be quite large, up to a foot high with caps as big as diner plates. It's called the fly agaric because in some regions little pieces of the mushroom are placed in milk to attract flies. The flies become inebriated and crash into walls and die.

The image to the right are some Christmas ornaments I bought in Germany a couple years ago. I especially like the Santa-like figure with the mushroom, the far right ornament. Apparently Amanita muscaria is considered good luck in many parts of Europe. Amanita muscaria can even be seen next to the four-leaf clover on this Lottery kiosk in downtown Frankfurt, shown below. You can even win a car, if you believe the smiling happy Amanita. I wonder why it's smiling...?Merry Christmas!

Amanita muscaria often fruits in the same areas and at the same time as the delicious edible mushroom Boletus edulis. Since Amanita muscaria is brightly colored and easily seen from a distance, they are used by many mushroom hunters as an indicator that they should be looking nearby for the more difficult to spot Boletus. Both form mycorrhizal associations with conifers in the same area.

Besides the brightly colored and large fruiting bodies, there is substantial interest in this mushroom because it is poisonous and hallucinogenic. Most fruiting bodies contain two toxins, ibotenic acid and muscimol. Ingestion of these toxins results in "expanded perception," talking to God, macropsia (perceiving objects as enlarged), rapid heartbeat, dry mouth. They are hallucinogenic and psychoactive, acting on the nervous system as neuropeptide receptors. (For those of your interested in neurobiology, muscimol is a substrate analog for GABA [gamma-amino-butyric acid], and ibotenate is a substrate analog for NMDA [N-methyl-D-aspartic acid]). GABA normally acts as a neurotransmitter and NMDA acts as glutamate receptor responsible for learning in a part of the brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for fear. Studies in rats have shown that the inactivation of this area of the brain through the use of muscimol and ibotenate will inhibit fear learning and the startle reflex. Eating the mushrooms effective turn off the fear emotion. [Many thanks to Brad Seebach, the neurobiologist in my department, for help with this section]

These mushrooms were effectively used by the Vikings when they were getting ready to invade a land. The Vikings essentially turned off their fear emotions, thus gaining their reputation for their fierceness. The people of many cultures of northern Europe lived in constant fear of invasion. Vikings would enter a village fearlessly, wreak havoc among the people and carry off the women. Before entering battle, the Vikings would go through a religious ritual in which they would dance around the woods and consume Amanita muscaria. So the main reason the Vikings were able to fight without fear is that they were on drugs! For this reason the Vikings were also known as the berserkers.

There are other cultures that used Amanita muscaria for religious or recreational purposes. The shamans in Siberia used this mushroom, called "mukhomor," to speak to their gods. R. Gordon Wasson wrote a book about this mushrooms (Soma-- the divine mushroom of immortality, 1968, NY, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) and believed Amanita muscaria to be Soma, which played an important role in Hindu culture and which he believed to have had a marked influence on the development of world religions. Further interesting reading on this would be "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East". --by John M. Allegro, (1970) Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.

A muscaria var. muscaria, v. formosa, v. alba As it turns out the Vikings were lucky that they didn't have to endure a lot of nasty side effects. In many parts of the world these mushrooms also contain toxins that make a person violently ill. This substance is apparently metabolized by the body while the hallucinogens are passed through the body unchanged. For that reason, some people used to drink the urine of other people (or animals) who had ingested the mushrooms, to get high without any of those nasty side effects. Some specimens contain a great deal of the chemical that makes you sick and very little of the hallucinogen. It can also be easily mistaken for Amanita pantherina or other Amanita species that are deadly poisonous. For these reasons I do NOT recommend recreational use of this mushroom and claim no responsibility if you foolishly decide to do so. (how's that for a disclaimer?)

reindeer chasing hallucinogenic mushroomsSome animals also use Amanita muscaria for recreational purposes. I have observed squirrels in Wisconsin guarding over a cache of these mushrooms up in a tree. It has also been reported that reindeer (caribou) in the northern climates also seek out and eat Amanita muscaria for their euphoric effects.

You have probably noticed that nearly every artsy-crafty depiction of a mushroom with frogs or fairies or elves has a red mushroom with white dots all over the cap. I'm always very amused by this. It kind of makes you wonder if the artist was munching on some of these mushrooms to induce such visions....!

My favorite Christmas decoration There is significant circumstantial evidence that the Santa Claus myth originated somehow associated with Amanita muscaria. Think about this now.... red clothes with white trim just like the cap of the mushroom..... reindeer flying all around... a whole lot of "ho ho hoing"... little elves making toys at the north pole... kinda makes you think doesn't it???
Also be sure to look at some seasonal Christmas Fungi-- check out my popular and newly revamped Fungi that are necessary for a merry Christmas
I hope everyone has happy holidays!

If you have anything to add, or if you have corrections or comments, please write to me at

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