The enchanting Amanita muscaria or fly agaric is a widespread and fairly common psychoactive and poisonous mushroom. Its common name comes from the ancient custom of placing pieces of the mushroom into milk to kill flies. The flies will ingest the water soluble chemicals, become inebriated, and will drown or fall into a stupor where they can be killed. The red variety (Amanita muscaria var. muscaria) looks very similar to the typical portrayal of a mushroom -- bright red cap with white spots and a medium sized, white, shaggy stem. There's quite a bit of speculation as to whether early artists were munching on these mushrooms for inspiration, but we can't know for sure. Aside from fly genocide and tripping, some people will use it as food in the form of a spice or detoxify it by parboiling the slices in water.
Characteristics and Identification
Depending on your variety, the wart-studded cap can be any color from red to white (see section Varieties below). The convex to plane cap can range from 5-30 cm in size and tends to soften in age. The gills are free, close and white. The white stalk is 5-20 cm long, 2.5 cm wide and has a scaly base. The ring is fairly large and is either white or cream. The volva is present, but unusually scaly and may form multiple rings at the base. A. muscaria is a mycorrhizal fungus commonly associated with pine, but can also make due with oak and madrone trees. Boletus edulis, better known by the names porcini or cep, often grows in the same areas as A. muscaria, so hunters will often use these bright red, dinnerplate sized mushrooms as an identifier species. This mushroom fruits most often when winter comes along, and can make a stunning impression as large, red clusters will adorn an otherwise dead forest floor.
Pharmacology and Effects
The primary agent in Amanita muscaria is muscimol, either directly from the mushroom or broken down from ibotenic acid in the body. The less active muscazone is also present, but in a lower amount than muscimol. While the toxin muscarine was originally isolated from Amanita muscaria, it is present in insignificant amounts. Aside from nausea and vomiting, David Arora summed up the symptoms as, "[T]he principal effects are on the central nervous system: confusion, mild euphoria, loss of muscular coordination, profuse sweating, chills, visual distortions, a feeling of greater strength, and sometimes hallucinations, delusions or convulsions. (An inordinate number of "trippers" mistake themselves for Christ)". Rather problematically, we do not know what causes the nausea and related symptoms, as muscimol and ibotenic acid are not responsible for these symptoms alone.
Despite all this, most trip reports on the Lycaeum and Erowid seem to be positive. Many people report ingesting the mushroom dried, while one reports blending it in with condensed milk. The effects seem to lead more toward ego death and delusions as opposed to the hallucinations produced by the psilocybin containing mushrooms. Excess salivation, twitching and nausea are common reported negative side effects. Texts that mention marijuana use note that pot will help relieve some of the symptoms. Most people report a restful sleep and no hangover effect.
For those of you that know about neurobiology, muscimol and ibotenate are substrate analogs for GABA and NMDA, respectively. Studies in rats have shown that muscimol and ibotenate will deactivate the amygdala, or the part of the brain that is responsible for fear. Consequently, rats will not learn any new fears or express the startle reflex. Some people have speculated that the Vikings used this mushroom in a religious ritual to suppress their feelings of fear and transform into real life beserkers.
There's a good deal of speculation that A. muscaria is the soma of the Rg Veda. R. Gordon Wasson was the first to introduce the idea in his book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. In the Rg Veda soma was described as something that grew on or near mountains and resembled the sun. This is consistent with what we know about A. muscaria because this mushroom would be growing up in the mountains with the pine trees it likes to associate with, and its bright red or orange cap could be easily compared to the sun. The entheogenic properties of this mushroom inspired the early Hindus to worship this mushroom as a god and use it in sacrificial rituals.
Many Siberian shamans used A. muscaria in their rituals and made it a central focus of their religion. Many times only the shamans themselves ingested it in conjunction with a seance, but in some tribes all of the men would participate. The mushrooms were strung together in threes to be dried and usually ingested in that amount. Effects reported by observers were increased strength, euphoria and hallucinations. Drinking the urine of the intoxicated individual was a common practice here as the desired alkaloids would pass out of the urine unmetabolized, but the sickening ingredients would not. The freshly produced urine could be used up to five times, assuming it was collected at the end of each session.
You can tell the different varities apart most easily by cap color. Keep in mind that all of these contain ibotenic acid, but the amount varies from species to species and almost definitely from individual to individual.
- Var. muscaria is the "classic" form showing a bright red cap that fades with age or weather and white warts. Found most commonly in Europe and around California.
- Var. guessowii is the variety yours truly comes across in New England and has a yellow-orange cap and orange-red tinges near the edge.
- Var. alba is white with greyish warts and is found scattered around North America.
- Subsp. flavivolvata is red with yellow warts and can range from Alaska to mid South America. You'll usually find this over var. muscaria in the States.
- Var. formosa is another yellow variety in found in Europe, but there is some controversy as to whether this grows in North America as well.
- Var. persicina is salmon colored and usually lacking universal veil remnants such as warts. It is found most commonly in the southeast of the United States.
There is some speculation that the European strains have less of the nauseating chemicals, but some people will dismiss this and say it's just the DEA fear-mongering and spreading rumors. On a related note, many people recommend cannabis to alleviate the nausea and drying the mushrooms to make them less toxic. A. muscaria and its derivatives are legal here in the United States of America and in most other countries. The only country I know of where this mushroom is controlled is Israel.
After doing all this research, I'm still not quite sure if I'd recommend having an experience with muscimol containing mushrooms. If you're considering trying these, I'd recommend gathering quite a bit more information than what's presented in this node. The Lycaeum and Erowid are great places to start, and more information is available in the links below. You'll also probably want to read up on psychedelic drugs in general. A good starting point would be The Essential Psychedelic Guide by D.M. Turner. A trip sitter wouldn't be a bad idea either. Happy hunting 'til then.
David Arora. Mushrooms Demystified.