By Kirsty Jackson (@kjjscience)
Fly agaric, Amantia muscaria, is arguably one of the most iconic members of the fungal kingdom. Its bright red cap with white spots has featured in many fairy tales and stories including Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Fly agaric is a member of the Basidiomycete phyla and can be found across the world in wooded areas. It tends to be found in groups 4 of 5 mushrooms near spruce, fir, birch, cedar and pine trees. This is because A. muscaria is an ectomycorrhizal symbiotic fungus; meaning that it forms a close association with the roots of these trees exchanging beneficial nutrients for sugars made by the tree during photosynthesis. It emerges from the ground as a white egg like structure out which the fungal fruiting body (the mushroomy bit) will grow. As it grows the fungi will break through a veil-like membrane, known as the universal veil and the red cap will become visible. The white or yellowish spots common to Fly agaric are left over pieces of the universal veil. On the underside of the cap, the gills are white and the spores are white too. More yellow or orange varieties of A. muscaria exist such as Amanita muscaria var. guessowii :
Video: Time-lapse of Fly agaric growing
The common name of Fly agaric comes from its use as an insecticide when crumbled into milk; this practice was described by Albertus Magnus in his book De vegetabilibus in the 13th century. Apart from its bright colours, Fly agaric is also known for its psychoactive or “magic mushroom” properties due to chemicals such as Ibotenic acid (see below). It has been well documented throughout history of Shamans and other religious figures using the mushroom to achieve trance-like states. Often the chemicals were obtained by feeding Fly agaric to animals, such as reindeer, and then drinking their urine – Don’t try this at home! The same chemicals which make this mushroom a “magic” one can also be very toxic and could cause death. To give you a hint as to the danger of consuming these fungi, other members of the of the Amantia genus are known as “death cap” (A. phalloides) and “destroying angels”.
About the author: Kirsty Jackson is a fellow PhD student at the John Innes Centre, Norwich. She is studying rhizobial and mycorrhizal symbioses with legumes and loves all things fungi! When she isn’t in the lab she is involved with organising science outreach events. Follow her on twitter (@kjjscience)
- Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) by Anemone Projectors distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.
- Amanita muscaria (presumed var. guessowii) by Ragesoss distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.
- Ibotenic acid by Elbreapoly.
Crundwell, E. (1987) “The Unnatural History of the Fly Agaric” Mycologist http://www.fungi4schools.org/Reprints/Mycologist_articles/Post-16/Biodiversity/v01p178-181Amanita_folklore.pdf
http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Amanita-muscaria.htm (website accessed 21/6/13)
- Guest post. Fungi: more than just mushrooms (plantscientist.wordpress.com)