Amanita muscaria Fly Agaric
Edible, Toxic and mind-altering. To our knowledge, no other fungi hold such a broad description. These certainly require no introduction.
Phylum: Basidiomycota - Class: Agaricomycetes - Order: Agaricales - Family: Amanitaceae
The Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, is a hallucinogen and must be considered poisonous. These attractive fungi often appear in groups and are a common sight in all kinds of woodlands.
Usually recurring in the same place for several years, Amanita muscaria is found frequently throughout the northern hemisphere, including Britain and Ireland, mainland Europe, Asia, the USA and Canada.
For a detailed description of the Amanita genus and identification of common species see our Simple Amanita Key...
When they first emerge from the leaf litter of the forest floor, the young fruitbodies are covered entirely in pointed white warts, as seen here. As the caps expand the red pellicle shows through until eventually, the cap comprises mainly red skin with white warts distributed more or less evenly across its surface. Heavy rain or even contact with animals is sometimes sufficient to remove some or all of the white flakes from the cap of a Fly Agaric, so you may see some 'bald' specimens.
Amanita muscaria is an introduced species in New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia, where there are concerns that the Fly Agaric may be spreading at the expense of native fungal species.
In the USA Amanita muscaria is found with the red colouration that occurs in Europe as well as an orange-yellow form, Amanita muscaria var. Formosa (Pers.) Bertil., with a yellow-tinged stem and ring. (This form is seen very rarely in Britain).
The common name Fly Agaric is a reference to the tradition of using this mushroom as an insecticide. In some European countries, caps of Amanita muscaria are crumbled up and placed in saucers of milk to attract house flies. The flies drink the milk, which contains ibotenic acid that not only attracts flies but also poisons them. (Ibotenic acid is soluble in water and hence in milk also, and so the ibotenic acid is dissolved from within the mushroom.) As the flies drink the milk they become drowsy, collapse and die (or perhaps they simply drown in their spiked milk drink!). The specific epithet muscaria comes from the Latin word musca, meaning 'a fly'.
When the first edition of Fascinated by Fungi, my book about the kingdom of fungi and its many facets, was nearing completion I had no difficulty at all in choosing the front cover picture: it just had to be a beautiful group of Fly Agarics. The same species has appeared on other book covers in the past, I know, but that didn't deter me: my book is different and the group of Fly Agarics is very special too. (A photogenic group of the equally beautiful Porcelain Fungus adorns the cover of the latest edition.)
Whenever I come across a perfect specimen of Amanita muscaria, the Fly Agaric, my heart leaps and I experience yet again the intense feeling of amazement that came over me so many years ago when for the first time I saw this fabulous fungus in a forest. Incidentally, I found the photogenic group of Fly Agarics (above) whose picture adorns the cover when wandering through the Caledonian Forest, in Scotland, where these fungi are very common and often form large groups.