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Amanita muscaria

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Amanita muscaria

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Amanita muscaria
Conservation status: Secure
Amanita muscaria,near Tyndrum, Scotland
Amanita muscaria,
near Tyndrum, Scotland
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Fungi
Division: Basidiomycota
Class: Homobasidiomycetae
Subclass: Hymenomycetes
Order: Agaricales
Family: Amanitaceae
Genus: Amanita
Species: A. muscaria
Binomial name
Amanita muscaria
(Linnaeus) Hook.

Amanita muscaria, commonly called fly agaric or less often fly mushroom, is a basidiomycete mushroom of the genus Amanita. The original white-spotted red toadstool, it is one of the most recognizable mushrooms and is widely used in popular culture. Though it is generally considered poisonous, Amanita muscaria is otherwise famed for its hallucinogenic properties.

The common names in English, "fly agaric", and German, "Fliegenpilz", come from its European use as an insecticide, sprinkled in milk. This was known to Linnaeus who gave it the name "Agaricus muscarius", the specific name deriving from Latin musca meaning "fly". The flykilling agent is now known to be ibotenic acid[1].

A mushroom that is native to both Europe and North America, Amanita muscaria has been unintentionally conveyed to many countries in the southern hemisphere, generally as a symbiont with pine plantations, and is now a true cosmopolitan species.



Amanita muscaria is a large distinctive mushroom, generally common and numerous where it grows, often being found in groups with basidiocarps in all stages of development. Fully grown, the bright red cap is usually around 8-20 cm (3-8 in) in diameter, though sometimes larger ones are found, and is covered with numerous small white to yellow flecks (warts). It is worth noting that the red colour may fade after rain and in older mushrooms. The warts are remnants of the universal veil, a membrane that encloses the entire mushroom when it is still very young. The gills are white, as is the sporeprint. The stem is white, 5-20 cm high (approximately 2-8 inches), with a basal bulb that bears universal veil remnants, in the form of a ragged collar or group of more or less distinct rings or ruffs that circles the base of the stalk (or stipe). The white ring can be quite wide and flaccid. There is generally no associated smell.[2]

A. muscaria showing various growth stages.
A. muscaria
showing various growth stages.

Fly agaric fruiting bodies emerge from the soil looking like a white egg, covered in the white warty material of the universal veil. As the fungus grows, the red colour appears through the broken veil, and the cap changes from bell-shaped to hemispherical and finally flattening in mature specimens[3].

Though very distinctive, the fly agaric has been mistaken for other yellow to red species in the Americas such as Armillaria cf. mellea and the edible Amanita basii, a Mexican species similar to A. caesarea of Europe. Poison control centers in the U.S. and Canada are aware that "amarillo" is a common name of caesarea-like species in Mexico, not just the Spanish for 'yellow'.

Amanita caesarea can be distinguished as it has an entire orange red cap, lacking the numerous white warty spots of the fly agaric. Furthermore the stem, gills and ring are bright yellow, not white[4]. Finally the volva is a distinct white bag, not broken into scales[5].

In Australia, the introduced fly agaric may be confused with the local Amanita xanthocephala, which grows in association with Eucalypts. This species also generally lacks the white warts of A. muscaria and bears no ring.


Amanita muscaria is a member of the large genus Amanita, of which there are many deadly poisonous as well as some edible species. The highly poisonous Panther Cap (Amanita pantherina) is somewhat similar in appearance though brown rather than red. Other red Amanitas include the previously mentioned edible Caesar's mushroom (Amanita caesarea).

Two recent molecular studies show that Amanita muscaria's close relatives in the genus appear to be Amanita gemmata, A. farinosa and A. roseitincta.[6][7]


Amanita muscaria americana has a yellow cap surfaceMiddlesex Fells, Massachusetts
Amanita muscaria americana has a yellow cap surface
Middlesex Fells, Massachusetts

Other varieties have similar appearance to var. muscaria, but differ most conspicuously in cap colour:

  • Var. alba, an uncommon fungus, has a white to silvery white cap with white warts but otherwise similar to the usual form. Fruiting in August and September, it is restricted to mixed coniferous and deciduous forests in northern North America.[8]
  • Var. americana has a yellow or yellow-orange cap
  • Var. aureola is found in southern Europe, and has an orange cap.
  • Var. flavivolvata is red, with yellow warts, and occurs in the western regions of the North American continent, from southern Alaska down through the Rocky Mountains, Costa Rica to at least Andean Colombia. It contains similar poisons to var. muscaria.
  • Var. formosa, found in Europe, has an orange-yellow cap with yellowish or tan warts and stem.
  • Var. guessowii is yellow to orange, with center of cap more orange or reddish orange than the outer part, apparently restricted to northeastern North America, from Newfoundland and Quebec down to Tennessee.
  • Var. persicina is pinkish to orangish "melon" colored with poorly formed or absent remnants of universal veil on the stem and vasal bulb, known from the Southeastern Coastal areas of the U.S.A, described in 1977[9].
  • Var. regalis, from Scandinavia and Alaska[10], is liver-brown and has yellow warts. It appears to be uniformly distinctive and some authorities treat it as a separate species (A. regalis) though at least one DNA study does not support this.[11]

Distribution and habitat

Amanita muscaria is a cosmopolitan mushroom, found naturally in birch, pine, spruce and fir woodlands across the northern hemisphere from the British Isles to Siberia, and North America. It has been widely transported into the southern hemisphere, including Australia,[12] New Zealand, South Africa[13] and South America, where it usually occurs under introduced pine trees.

In Australia it appears to have formed new associations with southern beech (Nothofagus) in Tasmania and Victoria and invading native rainforest.[14]

When imported to a new country, A. muscaria can jump to native species (for example, Eucalyptus in Australia). It can then be exported with its new symbiont (for example, from Australia to Argentina).

A recent molecular study proposes an ancestral origin in the Siberian–Beringian region in the Tertiary period before radiating outwards across Asia, Europe and North America.[11]


Amanita muscaria growing in autumn Scottish woodland
Amanita muscaria growing in autumn Scottish woodland

Consuming more than about one gram of Amanita muscaria can cause nausea and a number of other effects, depending on dosage, ranging from twitching to drowsiness, cholinergic effects (lower blood pressure, increase sweat and saliva), visual distortions, mood changes, euphoria, relaxation, and hallucinations.

In near-fatal doses it causes swollen features and delirium, characterised by bouts of marked agitation followed by periods of quiet hallucination. Effects appear after around 60 minutes and typically peak within three hours, but certain effects can last for up to ten hours. The effect is highly variable and individuals can react quite differently to the same dose.

Deaths from A. muscaria are extremely rare. Fatal doses have occurred in North America (var. guessowii). The amount and ratio of chemical compounds per mushroom varies widely from region to region, season to season, further confusing the issue. Many older books list it as deadly, giving the impression that it is far more toxic than it really is. The vast majority of mushroom poisoning fatalities (90% or more) are from having eaten either the greenish to yellowish to brownish mottled death cap (Amanita phalloides) or one of the destroying angels (Amanita virosa), several overall white Amanita species.

The toxic substances of A. muscaria are water soluble and susceptible to heat. The mushroom can be at least partly de-toxified by thoroughly parboiling or leaching it in boiling water. According to some sources[1], once detoxified, the mushroom becomes edible.


The mushroom contains a number of psychoactive agents: ibotenic acid, muscimol, muscazone and muscarine, of which muscimol (3hydroxy-5-aminomethy-1 isoxazole, an unsaturated cyclic hydroxamic acid) is the most significant. Muscarine, discovered in 1869, was long thought to be the active hallucinogenic agent in A. muscaria until late 1960s, when scientists recognized it as ibotenic acid and muscimol. Some users cook the mushroom before ingestion, because it is said that the ibotenic acid turns into muscimol under this heat. This supposedly removes several unpleasant side effects due to the conversion of the much more toxic ibotenic acid into muscimol.

Muscarine binds with Muscarinic acetylcholine receptor and lead to the excitation of the neurons bearing these receptors.

Psychoactive properties

A basket of A. muscaria
A basket of A. muscaria

Although the fly agaric is not related to other psychoactive fungi such as the Psilocybe species, it has been used as an entheogen in rituals to communicate to the spirit world, largely in Siberia, with some reported incidents elsewhere in the northern hemisphere. Mesoamericans never consumed fly agaric for religion, but instead use Psilocybe. Psilocybe and Amanita are not chemically related with regard to their psychoactive properties and therefore produce markedly different psychoactive effects.[15]

The active ingredient is excreted in the urine of those consuming the mushrooms, and it has sometimes been the practice for a shaman to consume the mushrooms, and the rest of the tribe to drink his urine: the shaman, in effect, partially detoxifying the drug (the sweat- and twitch-causing muscarine is absent in the urine)[16]. This was also not an uncommon practice in Siberia, where the poor would consume the urine of the wealthy, who could afford to buy the mushrooms [2]. If a fly agaric is eaten, it is usually not fresh, but in its sun-dried form, where the hallucinogenic chemicals are more concentrated (ibotenic acid converted to the more stable and far less poisonous muscimol).

The notion that Nordic Vikings used Amanita muscaria to produce their berserker rages was first suggested by the Swedish professor Samuel Ödman in 1784.[17] Ödman based his theories on reports about the use of fly agaric among Siberian shamans. The notion has become widespread since the 19th century, but no contemporary sources mention this use or anything similar in their description of berserkers. Today, it is generally considered an urban legend or at best speculation that cannot be proven.

Mythology and religion

Group of Amanita muscaria, Westerholter Wald, Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Group of Amanita muscaria, Westerholter Wald, Gelsenkirchen, Germany.

Koryak Siberians have a story about the fly agaric (wapaq) which enabled Big Raven to carry a whale to its home. In the story, the deity Vahiyinin ("Existence") spat onto earth, and his spittle became the wapaq, and his saliva becomes the warts. After experiencing the power of the wapaq, Raven was so exhilarated that he told it to grow forever on earth so his children, the people, can learn from it.Finno-Ugric peoples have traditionally used Amanita muscaria as entheogen.

Amanita muscaria is widely thought to be the Soma talked about in Rig Veda of India,[15] and is less often also thought to be the amrita talked about in Buddhist scriptures.[18]

John Marco Allegro argues in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross that the Christian religion is derived from a sex and psychedelic mushroom cult.[19]

Ethnobotanist and ethnomycologist Giorgio Samorini suggests in his book "Animals and Psychedelics" a symbiotic relationship between toads, flies and fly agaric. Flies, after a lick of Amanita Muscaria become inebriated and delirious prey for hungry toads that may have learned this, therefore hanging out around toadstools. This relationship within nature illuminates an etymological keystone and example of zoopharmacognosy. This would also provide further biosemiotic insight into the ancient mystery of toads, flies and mushrooms appearing together in popular mythology and fairy lore.

The British writer Robert Graves theorizes in a preface to his book, The Greek Myths, that the Dionysian saturnalias were conducted under the influence of this mushroom.[20]


Amanita muscaria is un-scheduled in the United States. Any sales of Amanita muscaria for human ingestion are regulated by the FDA.

In the United Kingdom, the sale of Amanita muscaria is illegal.

Popular culture

The classic shape, well known in popular culture
The classic shape, well known in popular culture

The red-and-white spotted toadstool is a common image in popular culture; a partly grown Amanita muscaria, as shown left, is clearly the fungus which this icon is based on.

Children's culture

Garden ornaments, and children's picture books depicting gnomes and fairies very often show fly agaric mushrooms used as seats, or homes; it is rather uncommon for any other mushroom to be shown in this role. How this artistic convention arose is not known.


The mushroom is mentioned in the song "The Flowers of Guatemala" by the American band R.E.M., providing the song's central image.

Santa Claus

The ethnobotanist Jonathan Ott has suggested that the idea of Santa Claus and the tradition of hanging stockings over the fireplace is based centrally upon the fly agaric mushroom itself.[21] With its generally red and white color scheme, he argues that Santa Claus's suit is related to the mushroom. He also draws parallels with flying reindeer: reindeer are said to enjoy the mushroom because of its euphoric results, and therefore prance around in a hallucinogenic after-effect.[22] A direct connection to Santa Claus is not very likely, as until the 20th century, the red-and-white Santa suit familiar today was not especially common (see also: Origins of Santa Claus). One scholar researching possible links between religious myths and the red mushroom notes, "If Santa Claus had but one eye [like Odin], or if magic urine had been a part of his legend, his connection to the Amanita muscaria would be much easier to believe."[23]

Ott also speculates about Santa's bag of toys. According to historians, ancient Siberia was one of the first civilizations to use fly agaric in practice. The Siberian hut, or yurt, is equipped with a smokehole at the top. Ott suggests that a shaman entered the yurt through the smokehole with a sack of mushrooms in his hand, to be placed in stockings over the fireplace where they could be dried for celebratory use.


  1. ^ Nilson S & Persson O (1977). Fungi of Northern Europe 2: Gill-Fungi. Penguin.
  2. ^ Jordan P & Wheeler S (2001). The Ultimate Mushroom Book. Hermes House.
  3. ^ Zeitlmayr L (1976). Wild Mushrooms:An Illustrated Handbook. garden City Press, Hertfordshire. ISBN 0-584-10324-7.
  4. ^ Haas H (1969). The Young Specialist Looks at Fungi. Burke.
  5. ^ Krieger LCC (1967). The Mushroom Handbook. Dover.
  6. ^ Moncalvo J-M, Drehmel D, & Vilgalys R. (2000). Variation in modes and rates of evolution in nuclear and mitochondrial ribosomal DNA in the mushroom genus Amanita (Agaricales, Basidiomycota): phylogenetic implications. Molecular Phylogenetic and Evolution 16:48-63.
  7. ^ Drehmel D, Moncalvo J-M, & Vilgalys R. (1999). Molecular phylogeny of Amanita based on large subunit ribosomal DNA sequences: implications for taxonomy and character evolution. Mycologia 91:610-618
  8. ^ Phillips R (1991). Mushrooms of North America. Little, Brown & Co.. ISBN.
  9. ^ Jenkins DT. (1977). A taxonomic and nomenclatural study of the genus Amanita section Amanita for North America. Biblioth. Mycol. 57: 126 pp
  10. ^ Miller OK (1982) Higher fungi in Alaskan subarctic tundra and taiga plant communities. Arctic and Alpine Mycology: the First International Symposium on Arcto-Alpine Mycology (eds Laursen GA, Ammirati JF), 123–149. University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.
  11. ^ a b Geml J, Laursen GA, O’neill K, Nusbaum HC & Taylor DL (2006)Beringian origins and cryptic speciation events in the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) Molecular Ecology 15, 225–239
  12. ^ Reid DA (1980) A monograph of the Australian species of Amanita Persoon ex Hooker (Fungi). Australian Journal of Botany, 8, 1–96
  13. ^ Reid DA, Eicker A (1991) South African fungi: the genus Amanita. Mycological Research, 95, 80–95.
  14. ^ Fuhrer B. (2005) A Field Guide to Australian Fungi. Bloomings Books. ISBN 876473-51-7
  15. ^ a b Wasson, R. Gordon. (1968). Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Harcourt Brace Jovanovick, Inc.
  16. ^ Alan Bellows. "Urine For a Treat", Damn Interesting, January 21 2006. Retrieved on 2006-11-08. (in English)
  17. ^ Ödman S .(1784) Försök at utur Naturens Historia förklara de nordiska gamla Kämpars Berserka-gang (An attept to Explain the Berserk-raging of Ancient Nordic Warriors through Natural History) Nya Handlingar, publ. Kungliga Vetenskaps Akademien 5 Stockholm. 240-247
  18. ^ Hajicek-Dobberstein, Scott. 1995. Soma siddhas and alchemical enlightment: psychedelic mushrooms in Buddhist tradition. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 48, pp. 99-118.
  19. ^ Allegro, John. (1970). The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East. London: Hodder and Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-12875-5.
  20. ^ Graves R. (1955) The Greek Myths, London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-001026-2
  21. ^ Ott 1976, p. 97
  22. ^ Wasson 1968, p. 168
  23. ^ Hajicek-Dobberstein 1995, p. 117


  • Heinrich, Clark. Strange Fruit. Retitled by the publisher as 'Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy'. Excellent view of Amanita Muscaria in the history of the world's religions.
  • Högberg, Ole. Flugsvampen och människan. Section concerning the berserker myth is published online [3] (In Swedish and PDF format) ISBN 91-7203-555-2
  • Ott, J. 1976. Hallucinogenic Plants of North America. Wingbow Press, Berkeley.

External links

Home | Up | Agaricales | Amanita muscaria | Ayahuasca | Ergot | Morning glory | Nicotiana rustica | Peyote | Psychedelic mushroom | Soma | Tobacco

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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