Article and photos by Mary Jo Adams ’99
A recent brisk fall day found me hiking along a richly wooded trail at Deception Pass State Park where I came upon an eye-catching fly amanita mushroom. With its red to red-orange cap sprinkled with cream/white warts, its identity was easily established. Reading up on the species, I learned the cap’s color varies somewhat in different areas of North America; it may instead be yellow or occasionally even white. In our area, the red to red-orange variety is most common. In addition to North America, the fly amanita is native to Great Britain, mainland Europe, and parts of Asia. The individual that I saw was missing part of its cap; it had probably become food for slugs, squirrels, or deer.
A little research uncovers some really fascinating information about the fly amanita. To start with, it’s scientific name is Amanita muscaria. The species name, muscaria means “a fly” and is derived from the ancient practice of putting crumbles of the mushroom in milk to create a primitive insecticide.
The fly amanita is toxic to humans and is also known to contain psychoactive compounds. Resources indicate that the genus Amanita (which also contains the “deathcap” mushroom) is responsible for 90% of mushroom induced deaths. Many online resources offer advice on how to process the fly amanita to remove its toxicity or prepare it for use as a hallucinogen but my advice would be to admire it for its beauty and not ingest it in any manner. Ancient Siberian shamans tried to detoxify it by feeding it to reindeer and then drinking their urine. All I can say is that they must have been really hard up for entertainment!
One property of this species’ psychoactive compounds involves the brain’s amygdala where research suggests it turns off the fear response. Viking warriors are believed to have taken advantage of this property and used it before battle to increase their ferocity. It was from this superhuman savagery that they became known as berserkers.
The fly amanita is known to form mycorrhizal associations with the roots of pine, spruce, fir, birch, and aspen trees so watch for it where you find these trees. It is also sometimes seen around madrona and oak trees and can be found as a solitary individual, small grouping, or fairy ring.
Don’t let our recent autumn onset weather changes keep you from getting outside to enjoy and discover new wonders from the natural world!