Moving into autumn means it’s time for mushrooms. The cooler temperatures and increased precipitation cause the ‘shrooms to pop! But, before I go any further about mushrooms, I need to give some basic cautions. First, if you ever plan on collecting wild mushrooms you should understand exactly what a mushroom is and what it does. This means understanding why it grows, how it grows and what it does. Second, there are many deadly poisonous mushrooms so you can never be too cautious. Make sure you consult a field guide or even better, two field guides because you can never be too cautious.
Recently while I was photographing black bears, I ran across some amazing mushrooms called the Fly Agaric or Fly Amanita (Amanita muscaria). These are large and obvious mushrooms and could be the most recognizable mushroom on the planet. No doubt you have seen these mushrooms in person or illustrated in a book or depicted in movies. It is often seen illustrated in children’s books because of its bright color. Once you have seen the picture you will no doubt recognize the mushroom. It is that common and obvious.
The Fly Agaric is a mushroom, sometimes called toadstool, that is the genus amanita. It got its name from the fact that it is often used to attract and kill houseflies. The amanitas are a group of mushrooms that contain some of the most toxic and deadly ‘shrooms on the planet. This group contains the Death Cap (amanita phalloides) and the Destroying Angle (amanita virosa) mushrooms, both of which will easily kill a healthy adult human with just one or two mouthfuls. That is not to say that you will immediately drop over dead upon eating one of these killers. No, it is a long, drawn out process that actually starts about two to three days after you have ingested the deadly mushrooms and ends about a week or more later. The amatoxins in these mushrooms kill the liver, so actually you die from liver failure. The only known cure for ingesting these deadly mushrooms is a liver transplant. Not pleasant!
But I don’t want to talk about the “deadly” amanitas. I want to talk about the little brother of the killers, the Fly Agaric. It can grow to over 12 inches tall and has either a bright red or vibrant orange/yellow cap. The cap is covered with dozens of white flecks that are easily wiped or washed off. Under the cap are paper thin, white gills, which are where the spores of the mushroom are produced.
The Fly Agaric has a long white stem and a loose-fitting skirt around the upper part of the stem. All of this grows or emerges from a white ball-shaped cup at the base. Although classified as poisonous, it doesn’t contain the deadly compounds that kill your liver. It contains ibotenic acid which converts to muscimol. Muscimol is one of the principal psychoactive chemicals and causes massive hallucinations. Now before you get any crazy ideas about using this mushroom recreationally, you need to know that the amount of muscimol varies widely from region to region and season to season so you have no idea how much muscimol is in any given mushroom. In addition, the chemicals also cause intense stomach cramps, sweating, vomiting and diarrhea. It is reported that you are so sick that you wish you would die but you don’t.
It has also been reported that deaths from eating this mushroom, whether intentional or accidental, are rare. However, it has been estimated that 15 large caps of the Fly Agaric are enough to kill an adult. It’s best not to mess with these mushrooms.
The Fly Agaric grows around the world in northern temperate zones. Because of this, there are many reports from many different cultures around the world using the Fly Agaric for medicine or in ancient ceremonies. For example, it was recorded that the people of Siberia used this mushroom by its shamans as an alternative of achieving a trance-like statehood. It has also been used in many religious communities. The Siberian shaman would eat the mushroom and others would drink his urine. The urine, containing the psychoactive elements would be more potent than the mushroom itself and would have fewer negative side effects such as muscle twitching and sweating, suggesting that the original person eating the mushroom acted like a filter for the other compounds that causes these negative side effects.
So, this autumn when you are out running around, look for the Fly Agaric. Be safe, don’t even touch it, just enjoy it with your eyes or camera. Until next time…