With it's bright red cap and white spots, the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) is famous mushroom known around the world. It's also one of the only mushrooms I know that has psychoactive effects, and is potentially poisonous, as well as edible.
European Amanita Muscaria (common name fly agaric) the well-known version with a red cap from Europe.
People in North America know it as the mushroom from Alice and Wonderland. Some connect it to Santa Claus and Christian Christmas celebrations. Others claim it's the Soma drink of the ancient Vedic culture. In this post I'll share everything I know about this mushroom: the good, the bad, the weird, and the in-between.
A young fly agaric.
The mushrooms are mycorrhizal, forming symbiotic relationships with host trees. They're widespread and found across temperate and boreal forests in the northern hemisphere.
Amanita Muscaria Identification
With their brilliant red and white cap, fly agarics are pretty easy to identify. Here's a few key points on identifying them.
- Always grow directly from the ground.
- Have a brilliant red cap generally covered with warts that are the remnant of the universal veil that covers the young mushrooms as they grow. The warts are typically visible, but can be removed by rain.
- Amanita Muscaria var. guessowii, found in North America, has a yellow or reddish-orange cap.
- Young buttons are often completely covered in white warts.
- The mushrooms will usually have a volva at the base of the stem. This is the remnants of the universal veil that covered them when they were young.
- Very young mushrooms can resemble puffballs. They'll have a mushroom cap inside when cut in half.
- The stem base is often bulbous or swollen.
- These are large, sturdy mushrooms, but the cap easily detaches from the thick stem.
Note the bulbous base and ring around the stem.
Amanita Muscaria Look A Likes
- Amanita flaviconia is much smaller than muscaria which can be as large as dinner plates.
- Amanita pantherina has a brown cap and contains higher amounts of ibotenic acid.
- Fly agarics are also related to deadly amanitas like A. bisporigeria.
Muscaria Variation Guessowii
This is the version we have in the Midwest that I see and harvest on occasion. I see them almost exclusively with young aspen stands in the fall and late summer. It's widespread and common.
In 2022 the name of A. muscarica var guessowii has been said to be changed to Amanita Chrysoblema. This has yet to be standardized.
Amanita muscaria guessowii.
History and Mythology
There's all kinds of stories and legends about the famous red-capped mushrooms. Here's a few of my favorite anecdotes.
Some people claim Viking berserkers would eat or Amanita pantherina before going into battle to induce their legendary berserker rage. I'm skeptical, but some people definitely believe it. This theory seems hotly contested and others say the consumable in question was a plant.
Gordon Wasson's research and study of the mushroom is documented in his book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. The book claims muscaria was the sacred plant used in religious rituals in Indo-Aryan culture of what's now Punjab in India.
Amanita guessowii in Minnesota. These are large mushrooms.
Gordon Wasson says the Koryaks, a nomadic Lapland people who herd reindeer probably have the most colorful reputation with these mushrooms. The use of them has become an urban legend. Apparently the mushroom is important in entheogenic traditions and rituals.
According to legend a Siberian shaman eats the mushrooms, and a portion of the narcotic compound is filtered into his urine. Participants drink the urine to experience a hallucinogenic effect. While it sounds disgusting, it's entirely probable with what we know of mushroom toxicology.
Another flush of guessowii from a different patch. Note the red center on the caps that more closely resembles the classic cherry-red muscaria. I often see slightly color variations.
Is Amanita Muscaria Psychadelic?
In short, yes. The most well-known aspect of fly agaric mushrooms are their hallucinogenic properties. I'm not trying to tell anyone to eat muscaria to get high, unless you want to go to the hospital. As I have a bit of experience in the area, I'm sharing what I know.
Muscaria is labeled as a poisonous mushroom or even deadly in most field guides. This could be due to the death of Italian Count de Vecchi in the United States and poisonings from narcotic use. Link at the bottom of the post for more on that.
Most people I know that have taken muscaria say it feels like you're drunk with slight visual distortions. I've never used it personally, but I know a couple people that do. Muscaria are very different from common magic mushrooms. Treat them with caution.
Eating too many muscaria caps can also be fatal. As mushroom foraging is gaining in popularity, it's something that will probably continue to increase as more people discover the hobby.
A fatal dose of muscaria has been said to be 15 caps, dried or fresh. Unfortunately cap size and weight aren't usually specified. To make things more risky, the compounds are thought to vary in concentration between collections. My friends in the mycological community have told me spring mushrooms can contain much more muscimol than fall mushrooms.
For more on poisonings from ingestion of fly agarics, see the 30 Year Poisoning Study by the North American Mycological Association at the bottom of this post.
Amanita muscaria var guessowii in Wisconsin.
How to Prepare Amanita Muscaria
To prepare Amanita muscaria as a narcotic dried mushrooms are boiled in water and taken as a tea. They can also be eaten dried as for psilocybin mushrooms like the liberty cap. Muscaria should never be eaten fresh.
I did a podcast with a man who ate fresh muscaria and his experience terrified me. Some people also claim you can smoke muscaria, but that seems like an urban legend to me. Most information I see seems to disagree.
Toxicology: Muscimol and Ibotenic Acid
Fly agaric mushrooms contain ibotenic acid. When the mushroom is ingested fresh or dried, the acid converts into the psychoactive compound muscimol by losing carbon dioxide (decarboxylation). Muscimol is what affects the central nervous system.
Cooking Amanita Muscaria
Muscaria is edible and a documented, traditional food in Japan. But, the tradition is only said to be found in a small area around Ueda. The mushrooms are boiled to detoxify the psychotropic compounds, and then eaten after fermenting in brine, often in miso soup.
A man boiling muscaria in his restaurant in Japan. Photo credit: David Arora.
To prepare muscaria for eating they can be cut into slices and boiled. Some boil it twice. Mycologist David Arora was the first person I heard of to demonstrate this. I've cooked and eaten a good number of muscaria inspired by his research.
Japanese-style muscaria pickles.
The fermented muscaria I've made were great in miso soup. If you want to know how to make the mushrooms safe to eat, there's a link below. This should only be attempted by foragers who can identify amanita mushrooms.
Possession of Amanita muscaria or muscimol is legal in every state except Louisiana as of this writing. Dried muscaria is also sold in Wiccan and alternative religion stores across the United States every year, and dispensaries in New York.
To dry the mushrooms for sale or consuming they can be treated like any other mushroom. Cut the mushroom into slices and dehydrate at 145F until crisp and bone dry. Dried mushrooms appear to lose their potency over time.
A Study of Cultural Bias in Field Guide Determinations of Edibility Using the Iconic Amanita Muscaria as an Example