Amanita muscaria: The Fly Agaric Mushroom Identification & Trip Effects

Amanita muscaria[i] is the most famous psychotropic mushroom species in the world among people who don’t actually use psychotropic mushrooms. It’s paradoxical status is the result of thousands of years of use among people who didn’t have access to, or didn’t know about Psilocybes or other mushrooms containing psilocybin[ii]. A. muscaria does not contain psilocybin—it is biochemically very different, and its effects can be unpleasant, even dangerous. So A. muscaria has an ancient place in many cultures and appears often in art and legend (it’s the red mushroom with white spots), but these days most people who want mushrooms for their magic choose Psilocybin.

It’s important to recognize that A. muscaria is poisonous. That is, it’s a basically dangerous mushroom that can be rendered usable through proper processing, not a basically safe mushroom with a few possible side-effects and risks, like the more familiar Psilocybes are. Unfortunately, the eagerness with which many writers insist that A. muscaria should never be eaten strikes many equally eager psychonauts as a mere cover-up, a lie meant to dissuade folks from tripping.

So let us be very clear: A. muscaria has been used safely by many people, both as a source of spiritual insight and, in some cases, as food. It is still being used, though it is not popular. Even cases of poisoning are usually not lethal, and usually resolve on their own within a day. The problem is that safe use depends on proper processing and proper dose control—and the dose is very difficult to control because both the potency of the mushroom and the sensitivity of humans vary dramatically. So while it can be used, most people should not use it.

The common name, fly agaric or fly amanita, is a reference to this species’ use as an effective fly poison. However, very few people ever use the “common” name. Most call it Amanita muscaria.

One final introductory note. Although this species does clearly have a place in European and Asian history, that place is often over-stated. Though many experts suspect that Soma, the mystical substance described in the myths and legends of India, was originally A. muscaria, no known preparation of the mushroom actually has the properties Soma has in the myths. Also, while virtually all of the myth and symbolism surrounding Santa Clause is sometimes explained as cultural echoes of shamanic mushroom-eating, at least some of that must be a coincidence.

Think Santa’s mushroomy red-and-white color scheme and his flying reindeer are clear evidence of an ancient, possibly paleolithic, Amanita-induced high?[iii]

Nope[iv].

Santa Clause did not consistently wear red until he got a re-design for a Coco-Cola advertising campaign in 1931.  Until then, he sometimes wore green, or even patriotic red, white, and blue. As for flying reindeer, until 1922, Santa’s wagon was pulled by a donkey, or possibly horses. In that year, the poet, Clement Clark Moore, switched Santa’s vehicle to a reindeer-pulled sleigh in his “The Night Before Christmas,” but his reindeer did not fly. Although the poem is almost universally misread as describing flying reindeer, a careful reader will note[v] that the deer and sleigh go up to get on the roof, rather than landing on it from above (also, the color of his fur is unspecified). The verb “flew” is used as a poetic description of a rather remarkable leap.

The reindeer jumped.

Identification and Description

Cap: Medium to large, domed when young, flattening with age, usually red or, in some regions, orange or yellow—though there are white or brown varieties, too. The upper surface is usually speckled by white or yellowish warts (these are represented as spots in art), though they can be knocked off by rain or by contact with animals. The interior flesh is white but turns yellow when cut open.
Gills:
Crowded, not attached to the stem, white to pale yellow.
Stem:
Long, of medium thickness, white or whitish, with a distinct skirt of tissue near the top and a cup of tissue around the swollen base that often breaks up into rings of scales.
Smell:
Nothing distinctive for identification.
Taste:
Nothing distinctive for identification.
Spores:
Ellipsoid.
Spore color:
White
Edibility:
Poisonous, but sometimes usable
Habitat: 
Lives in mycorrhizal partnership with the roots of many different plants. Fruits from the ground near its partner. Very common within its range.
Range: Native to the entire temperate and boreal zones in the Northern Hemisphere, and recently introduced to much of the Southern Hemisphere as well.

Recognizing Amanitas in general requires understanding the stages these mushrooms go through as they develop.

All Amanitas start out in an egg-stage in which the developing mushroom is encased in a shell of tissue called the universal veil. This veil ruptures as the mushroom starts to expand. The shape and placement of any remnants of the universal veil are important diagnostic features. The gills are initially covered by a sheet of tissue, the partial veil, that in turn ruptures. Remnants of the partial veil are also important diagnostic features. So depending on its age, an Amanita may be egg-like, may be mushroom-shaped but lack visible gills, or may have whatever veil remnants are characteristic of its species.

A. muscaria has a very bumpy universal veil. The bumps initially cover the entire cap surface, but as the caps expand the bumps spread out, becoming the warts so distinctive of the species. The cap is not truly spotted, but is universally represented that way in art, spots being easier to paint than warts. The cup or scales at the base of the stem, technically called the volva, are the bottom half of the universal veil. The partial veil remains as a long, hanging skirt or ring around the stem (unless something tears it off).

In general, A. muscaria is a large, brightly-colored, very handsome mushroom. For casual observers, it is one of the easiest mushrooms to identify, since it is so distinctive, even iconic. For people looking to actually eat a mushroom for whatever purpose, though, much more care is needed!

Amanita muscaria Look-Alikes

Typical-looking A. muscaria has no close look-alikes, but distant look-alikes can cause confusion, too, and not all specimens look typical in any case. Fortunately, A. muscaria is usually the most dangerous option; safe species are often mistaken for A. muscaria, but only rarely is A. muscaria mistaken for something more toxic than itself (that would be those Amanitas that contain amanitin and kill almost all who ingest them. Most of them are white, whitish, or greenish).

A. muscaria is occasionally mistaken for one or another of the edible Agaricus species, though close attention to detail will avoid that. Far more likely is that specimens that have lost their warts (in rain, for example) will be mistaken for one of the species in the Caesar’s mushroom group, which are fellow Amanitas and are often the same color. One of the most famous mushroom fatalities in American history (largely because the person who died was famous) involved just such a mistake.

In areas where A. muscaria has been only recently introduced, mistaken identity is a serious problem. In parts of Africa, for example, edible Amanitas are very popular and until recently had no close look-alikes on the continent. A number of people have died because they did not realize a new species had arrived and that close attention to certain details had become necessary.

Like all Amanitas, A. muscaria also could be mistaken for a puffball (perhaps one of the bumpier species) in its egg stage. All puffballs except the very largest harvested for the table must be sliced vertically and searched for signs of the internal structure of a young Amanita (or a young stinkhorn as they, too, have an egg-stage).

Some readers may be wondering how A. muscaria can be responsible for fatalities when it’s usually not deadly. “Usually” is the key word, here. People who eat large meals of multiple mushrooms, find unusually potent mushrooms, or are unusually sensitive to the toxin are indeed in grave danger.

Amanita muscaria Benefits

Aside from the mushroom’s use as a fly poison, and its value as a mycorrizal partner of plants, the benefits of A. muscaria fall into two distinct categories, psychoactive and culinary. Both come with serious caveats.

A subset of the latter is the use of the mushroom as medicine, especially through microdosing. While not much is known about the medicinal use of this species, some people do attempt to use it that way.

Please note that although possession and use of A. muscaria are not against US Federal law, there are some states that have laws against the mushroom, as do some other countries[vi].

A. muscaria as Food?

Some people do eat A. muscaria as food. Thorough processing (difficult and time-consuming) often removes the substances responsible for psychoactivity, as well as those responsible for the other, more dangerous, effects. Some experts insist that the species should simply be listed as edible—those claims are controversial[vii], but not because anyone doubts that some people eat A. muscaria without getting sick (though how many people have eaten it has been questioned). Rather, the doubt is over whether it makes sense to refer to anything as “edible” that is as difficult and risky as this mushroom is.

Fail to follow the detoxification procedure properly, and you could die.

On balance, it seems the species cannot be recommended as food, but there are writers on the internet who claim otherwise, and some are well-respected mycologists.

Reportedly, the mushroom is delicious.

A. muscaria for Mental Health?

“Feed your head” is a line from the song, “Go Ask Alice,” which explicitly advocates drug use. It seems likely that most people who deliberately ingest A. muscaria do so in order to alter their minds. The procedure still requires careful processing in order to reduce the concentration of the mushroom’s more dangerous substances while retaining its psychoactivity—and even then, the mushroom could cause serious problems if taken in excess. It’s also not uncommon for a would-be psychonaut to do the processing improperly or to otherwise have a bad reaction. Please see the section on Safety.

Under ideal circumstances, though, the experience is, reportedly, eye-opening.

A. muscaria as Medicine?

There are some medicinal claims made for A. muscaria, or at least for its safer chemical constituents. These include help with stress, muscle pain, and sleep issues[ix]. However, this use is not part of a folk-medicine tradition, nor is there much research supporting it yet. It might work, but we don’t yet know whether it does, or if using it is even safe.

Trip effects

The Trip effects of A. muscaria are generally much less visual than for psilocybin, though hallucinations can still occur. Altered thought-patterns—potentially leading to important insights—are more typical and may be intense, depending on the dose. Sleep is common, sometimes with very strange dreams[viii]. Potency is very variable and difficult to describe, since potency in a mushroom is usually presented as a comparison to Psilocybe cubensis, and A. muscaria does not contain psilocybin, making this an apples-to-oranges situation. Legal status is free and clear in some jurisdictions, but not in others.

Dosage

Dosage is almost impossible to calculate with any certainty, because potency varies so much between specimens, and because both processing methods and human sensitivity also vary. It’s best to be cautious and to never use more than a few mushrooms at a time.

Toxicity, Safety, & Side Effects

There are several different types of risk associated with A. muscaria, and it helps to talk about them separately.

The most or the least obvious, depending on a person’s perspective, is the fact that a high enough dose will cause sensory and mental distortions—yes, that’s exactly why most people who eat the mushroom do so in the first place, but someone who got those symptoms by surprise, perhaps having mistaken this species for some other, would be in a bad state.

A related issue is that even under ideal circumstances, there is the possibility of a psychonaut either suffering psychological harm from a too-intense trip, or making some kind of dangerous mistake (like leaving the stove on or passing out in the snow) due to not being sober. It’s important to prepare mentally for the experience, to have safe surroundings, and to have a sober friend on hand in case anything goes wrong.

As to “side effects,” these vary to some extent. Medical descriptions of A. muscaria poisoning report that gastrointestinal symptoms are rare, but trip reports often mention at least some nausea. Problems with balance and coordination are common. Some people become combative. Improperly-prepared material is likely to cause convulsions and sometimes coma. Death is unlikely but possible, especially with larger doses of improperly-prepared material. Treatment for over-dose includes gastric lavage (“pumping the stomach”) and supportive therapies, such as IV fluids, with close monitoring in a hospital setting[x].

It’s also worth noting that although it’s unlikely anyone could mistake one of the amanitin-containing Amanita species for A. muscaria, it is possible, especially since A. muscaria does have a white form that is a close look-alike of the various destroying angel species. Amanitin is a serious toxin that not only kills the majority of people who eat it, but also does so slowly, making proper diagnosis difficult. This is a mistake to avoid by any means necessary.

References:

[i]       (n.d.). Amanita muscaria (L.) Pers.–Fly Agaric. First Nature

[ii]      (n.d.). Fly Agaric. US Forestry Service

[iii]     Ibid.

[iv]     (2017). The Definitive History of Santa Claus. Coca-Cola Australia

[v]      Moore, C.C. (1822). A Visit from  St. Nicholas. Poetry Foundation

[vi]     (n.d.). Legal Status of Psychoactive Amanita mushrooms. Wikipedia

[vii]    Viess, D. (n.d.). Further Reflections on Amanita muscaria as an edible species. Bay Area Mycological Society

[viii]   (2017). Amanita muscaria Trip Report—Enlightenment. Shroomery

[ix]     McDonald, A. (2021). Harnessing the Therapeutic Potential of Muscimol. Technology Networks

[x]      Rampolli, F. I.,Kamler, P., Carlino, C.C., Bedusso, F. (2021). The Deceptive Mushroom: Accidental Amanita muscaria Poisoning. European Journal of Case Reports in Internal Medicine 8(2): 002212.

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