Amanita Muscaria (Fly Agaric): History & Toxicology of the Most Misunderstood Mushroom

A mystical magic mushroom recently made headlines for sitting on shelves at a dispensary in Florida. This mushroom is Amanita muscaria, known as “Fly Agaric” and colloquially as “Toadstool.”  Amanita mushrooms are fully legal in the United States and have a long history of use all over the globe. Spiritually significant for tribal peoples from Siberia to Eastern Europe for centuries, Amanita's use has spanned from psychedelic, to medicinal, to deadly. 

So, is the Amanita mushroom a psychedelic medicine or a harmful toxin? At ACS Laboratory, we’re on a quest to find out.

What is Amanita muscaria?

The Amanita muscaria is a beautiful psychoactive mushroom with a red or orange cap speckled with white dots and a tall, white stalk. Its iconic image is associated with fairies, magic, and beloved stories like Alice in Wonderland. Its image is famous in fairytales, artists’ renditions of mushrooms, consumer products, and even emojis.

Amanita mushrooms are native to the United Kingdom and emerge from leaf litter on the forest floor. Though native to the UK, Amanita also grows in the United States, across Europe, and in New Zealand, Australia, and Tasmania as an introduced species. The Amanita species is particularly fond of birch, pine, and spruce forests, where it helps trees communicate through a complex underground mycelial network.

Amanita Muscaria Hallucinogenic & Toxic Properties

The Amanita muscaria is a complex mushroom species that is both toxic and hallucinogenic. Experts consider Amanita psychoactive but not a traditional psychedelic because it doesn’t contain active compounds that interact with serotonin receptors, like psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, or mescaline. Instead, Amanita muscaria contains muscimol, ibotenic acid, and muscarine working differently in the brain to produce poisonous and mind-altering effects.  

  • Muscimol: An Amanita muscaria metabolite, GABA brain receptor agonist, and psychotropic. This alkaloid’s main effects include euphoria, out-of-body experiences, and synesthesia (experiencing one of the senses through another, like seeing music as colors instead of hearing its tune.) Muscimol has been used in trials studying the treatment of Epilepsy and Parkinson's Disease. 
  • Ibotenic acid: A potent neurotoxin and hallucinogen that directly impacts the central nervous system. When ingested via mushrooms, ibotenic acid rapidly decarboxylates to muscimol.
  • Muscarine: Muscarine exists in trace quantities in Amanita muscaria and is less hallucinogenic than muscimol and ibotenic acid. Still, muscarine poisoning can cause serious effects, including increased salivation, sweating, crying, loss of coordination, visual distortions, stomach issues, and euphoria. 

Muscimol, ibotenic acid, and muscarine deliver intriguing effects. Still, most people warn against ingesting Amanita muscaria mushrooms. In fact, famed mycologist Paul Stamets famously described the species as “one of the most dangerous mushrooms,” which caused him to go temporarily insane. 

Proper preparation is critical when it comes to ingesting this fascinating mycelial variety. Fortunately, death by Amanita ingestion is rare, and people can mitigate the harmful effects by parboiling (partially cooking) it with water or drying the mushrooms. This process weakens Amanita muscaria’s toxic properties. 

Historical Uses of Amanita Muscaria

Amanita muscaria has a long history of spiritual significance, with records of use in ritual drinks going back as far as 4,000 years. Indigenous peoples from Siberia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and Russia believed Amanita bore medicinal properties. They ingested the red-spotted mushrooms for pain relief, inflammation, anxiety, and as a stimulant, among other purposes.

The novel uses for Amanita are diverse, from medicinal to fly traps to wedding feasts, depending on the place and people who used it.

Slovenia

Amanita muscaria has been used as an insecticide for centuries. The Journal of Ethnopharmacology reported that Slovenians soaked this mushroom in milk or water to release ibotenic acid and muscimol, attracting and killing flies.  

Lithuania

Remote regions of Lituania reportedly soaked Amanita muscaria mushrooms in vodka. Lithuanians consumed them during wedding feasts, as well as in shamanic rituals of the Sami people in the far north of the country.

Siberia 

In Fly Agaric: A Compendium of History, Pharmacology, Mythology, & Exploration, the author outlines various ways Siberians used Amanita muscaria mushrooms cross-culturally. For example, the indigenous Siberian Khanty and Koryak reindeer herders use dried Amanita for energy to keep pace with the herd and as analgesics, anxiolytics, and sleep aids. Koryak shamans reportedly revered Amanita for its ability to connect them with the spirit realm, perform divination, and alleviate boredom on long winter nights.

Amanita Muscaria in Folklore

The mythology and folklore surrounding Amanita muscaria are staggering. Still, some of the most well-known theories associated with this brightly colored mycelium relate to an ancient brew used in ancient India and Iran and a thesis about our beloved Santa Claus.

The ancient mystic brew, Soma

Soma’s history traces back nearly 4,000 years to Asia and what is the Ancient Indus Valley. In the 1968 book Soma, the Divine Mushroom of Immortality, author Gordon Wasson argued that the ritual Vedic brew Soma was made from Amanita mushrooms. The clues that led Wasson to arrive at this hotly contested theory was that sacred Hindu text described the “plant” as small and leafless, with a fleshy stalk only to be found in the mountains, exactly where Amanita grew in this region.

An alternative theory of Santa Claus 

In the book, Mushrooms and Mankind by James Arthur, he posits that the folklore of Santa Claus was started by Amanita muscaria and Siberian shamans. During the winter solstice, shamans collected mushrooms, dried them on trees, and gifted them to villagers. Due to heavy snowfall blocking doorways, the shamans tossed bags of dried mushrooms into holes in the roofs of villagers’ homes, all the while wearing white and red to honor the mushroom.

The Takeaway

Amanita muscaria is widely misunderstood. Though many see it as deadly, it is a psychoactive substance worthy of respect and investigation. Amanita’s legal status in the US and the budding consumer interest in the mushroom’s therapeutic potential means it's time to better understand how Fly Agaric compounds function within the human body.

At ACS Laboratory, we test the Amanita Muscara to ensure it is free from pesticides, heavy metals, mycotoxins, and bacteria. For anyone wanting to ensure that the Amanita does not contain any psilocybin or psilocin for sales, we also can do a certified safety and compliance test.

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