The Warning Color of Amanita muscaria or Fly Agaric Mushroom
Amanita muscaria or Fly Agaric mushroom is one of the most beautiful and eye-catching mushrooms found anywhere, especially in the Northern hemisphere. Most undergraduate students in biology, forestry, chemistry, pharmacy, medicine, or young naturalists have been taught that the elegant shape and bright colorfulness of genus Amanita can be red, white, orange, yellow, green, or regular brown as a warming color. So, starting from the beginning they learned that Amanita mushrooms are toxic or poisonous.
Fly Agaric mushroom contains Ibotenic acid (C5H6N2O4), its decarboxylation by-product muscimol (C4H6N2O2) and muscarine (C9H20NO2). Although Ibotenic acid can bind the glutamate and aspartate that may create the umami or savory taste, the compound is a powerful neurotoxin that directly influences the central nervous system. Muscimol is a psychoactive compound that displays sedative-hypnotic, depressant, and hallucinogenic psycho-activity. Muscarine is a natural product found in certain mushrooms especially in Amanita. The medical uses of muscarine are as a neurotransmitter that influences the peripheral parasympathetic nervous system in treating glaucoma, gastrointestinal, and urinary tract diseases.
In nature, some animals such dogs, cats, foxes, squirrels, and reindeers eat Amanita mushrooms, and it was reported some of them died because of overdoses. According to the Vancouver Mycological Society, it is rare for people to accidentally consume the Fly Agaric with a red bright cap and white spots on it. It is intentionally ingested by some people seeking the inebriating effects, so these people rarely come to medical attention. This is probably because Amanita muscaria contains lower and more consistent quantities of the neurotoxins, resulting in milder and more predictable effects than its close relative one of the most poisonous mushrooms Dead Cap (Amanita phalloides) and Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa). It is also reported that very few people choose to use Amanita mushroom repeatedly.
The fiction stories about Amanita muscaria start with the “Fairy Tale Toadstool”. There is a less discussed myth in which it is believed that the Fly Agaric was the forbidden fruit that God forbade Adam and Eve to take in the garden of Eden rather than a red shiny apple. According to some scholars the forbidden fruit was the red shiny mushroom Amanita muscaria. It is well illustrated that the hallucinations from the recognizable red mushroom on the planet could be responsible for Alice’s trip into Wonderland. Our beloved images of a red-suit Santa Claus and his flying reindeers may be caused by eating Fly Agaric that makes Santa always “fly-high” happy and the reindeers also enjoy the Amanita mushroom.
There are two meanings of Amanita muscaria as a Fly Agaric mushroom. First, it is because some species of small flies use Amanita muscaria as their host to lay hundreds of eggs and their larvae (maggots) that can destroy this mushroom overnight by causing them to decompose. On the other hand, Amanita muscaria powder diluting in the milk is traditionally used for catching house fly Musca domestica. Second meaning, as it has been discussed before, that the compounds of the Fly Agaric can really make people fly-high, hallucinate drunk, and even die of the overdoses. Amanita muscaria is a conundrum because it is poisonous and edible at the same time. As the Amanita’s toxins are water soluble, special preparation is required to remove the toxins. This mushroom is not good for dinner although it produces umami or savory yummy taste.
This late Autumn I walked in the woods and found several colonies of Amanita muscaria. I found that Fly Agaric growth in pine forest had a dark red shiny color rather than lighter red color in the birch forest, and the young unopened cap was darker red than the opened cap. The right photo is Amanita muscaria at the pine habitat and the left photo at the birch habitat. Fly Agaric belongs to Basidiomycete fungus that forms symbiotic relationships with various coniferous trees (such as pine and spruce) and deciduous trees (birch, oak, hickory). It is normally found growing in sandy and acidic soils (pH 6 – 6.5).
At least there are five varieties or Amanita muscaria i.e. A. muscaria var. muscaria (bright red cap with white warts), A. muscaria var. guessowii or formosa (yellow-orange cap with yellowish warts), A. muscaria var. flavivolvata (orange-red cap with yellowish warts), A. muscaria var. regalis (brown cap with white warts), A. muscaria var. inzengae (orange-yellow cap with yellowish warts). Unfortunately, the molecular analysis does not support this neat classification by color or habitat characteristics. Someday all the Amanita muscaria varieties may become new species.
People want to try muscaria as an edible mushroom undoubtedly because as an entheogen to get high with hallucination experiences, and the cost for this can be fatal. This human habit may seriously influence the conservation of this species. Fortunately, nature gives an enigma as the dosage of the neurotoxins and psychoactive compounds, as they change not only from one mushroom to another stage and habitat, and even within the same mushroom with different parts of it, but also from person to person with different effects at different times.
Traditional uses and benefits of Fly Agaric in medicine are as a treatment for sore throats, arthritis, and as an analgesic, a sedative or depressant. Mushroom tincture helps to relieve sciatica (back pain) and other pains, including joint pain and swollen lymph nodes. It is also applied to external infections for example nail fungus and skin conditions found in Lyme disease. However, these uses and benefits are not supported yet by scientific research.
The legal status of psychoactive Amanita muscaria mushrooms in relation to the muscimol content is different in each country. Fly Agaric is illegal for example in Australia, Netherlands, Thailand, but is considered legal in Sweden, North America (Canada and United States), and Russia. In the Netherlands, A. muscaria and A. pantherina have been illegal since 2008. Possession of any amount larger than 0.5 g dried or 5 g fresh leads to a criminal charge.