(2009) December's mushroom is...
Aminita muscaria, the Fly Agaric
For December, the mushroom of the month is the fly agaric, a mushroom found throughout the Northern hemisphere and a mushroom that has been used for centuries to illustrate the mysterious world of toadstools. There are three species of fly agarics that occur in the U.S., the blood red Aminita muscaria var. muscaria, the; yellow to orange A. muscaria var. formosa and the white A. muscaria var. alba. The bright red form occurs mainly in the Western portion of the U.S., the yellow form in the Eastern portion and the white, though rare, scattered throughout the country. In all three forms, the white patches on the cap, remnants of the universal veil, are very prominent. Specimens of A. muscaria are both poisonous and hallucinogenic. While the yellow to orange version is the most common in Michigan, I have seen a specimen of the bright red form in the Upper Peninsula and have found the white version in S.E. Michigan.
For centuries the fly agaric has been central in folk art, crafts and kitsch. If you have some specimens of mushroom folk art or kitsch, it is very likely that the mushroom represented is the fly agaric. The name, the fly agaric, comes from the European use of this mushroom chopped up in milk placed on window sills to attract and kill flies. In far Northern climes, reindeer are very fond of eating the fly agaric, a possible explanation for the ability of Santa’s reindeer to fly. Fly agarics have been used by many cultures for religious or recreational purposes, shamans in Siberia used to mushroom to speak to their gods, Vikings used the mushroom to turn off their fear emotions prior to their raids on other lands, and it is possible that A. muscaria is Soma, the divine mushroom of immortality, of both Hindu and Aryan culture.
Fly agarics have a cap that is two to ten inches wide being dome shaped at first then expanding until nearly flat. The gills are white, fairly closely spaced and are free of the stem. The stalk is white, sometimes with yellowish tints, two to seven inches tall 3/8 to 1 ¼ inch thick with a partial veil extending from the stalk to the cap‘s rim in young specimens and leaving a substantial white membranous ring in older specimens. The base of the stalk consists of two or three concentric rings of white cottony tissue, remnants of the universal veil. The remnants of the universal veil also form the white flakes on the surface of the caps of this mushroom. The mushrooms have two toxins that are present in varying degrees, ibotenic acid and muscimol both of which have some hallucinogenic properties.
The American versions of this mushroom are generally more toxic than hallucinogenic. Some of the cultures that used this mushroom for religious purposes had shamans who had become inured to the toxins; the people achieved a high by drinking the urine of the shamans which did not contain the toxins as they had been filtered out by the bodies of the shamans. Some specimens contain a great amount of the chemical that makes you sick (rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, vomiting and diarrhea) and very little of the hallucinogen. The fly agaric can also be mistaken for other Aminitas that are more toxic or even deadly poisonous. We do not recommend the recreational use of this mushroom.