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Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria)

Arguably one of the most famous fungi, fly agaric is famous for its brightly red coloured cap.

Common name(s): fly agaric, fly amanita

Scientific name: Amanita muscaria

Family: Amanitaceae

Appearance

Overview: famous toadstool shape and has a vibrant colour. This species can grow to 20 cm across and 30 cm tall.

Cap: scarlet or orange colour sometimes visible with white wart like spots.

Gills: white colour located under the cap.

Stipe (stalk): white with a brittle texture.

Spores: white and oval.

Look out for: the red cap is a great indicator of this species.

Could be confused with: the blusher (Amanita rubescens), the cap is a pale reddish-brown colour and the spots are cream-coloured but it has a similar shape.

Where and when to spot fly agaric

When: from later summer, through to early winter.

Where: woodland and heath habitats on light soils among birch, pine or spruce. Fly agaric is a fungus that often forms mycorrhizal associations with birch, but also other trees too. 

Conservation status

Not considered to be of conservation concern.

Mythology and symbolism

Fly agaric has a long history of being used in religion particularly in Asia. It has been used in a sacred and hallucinogenic ritual drink called Soma in India and Iran for over 4,000 years. It has also been the topic of a Hindu religious hymn.

This toadstool has turned up in many fairy tale stories and is famous in the story of Alice in Wonderland where she is given some fly agaric to eat. It has also been shown in TV series like the smurfs and in the video game super Mario Bros.

How we use fly agaric

Fly agaric is poisonous and infamous for its psychoactive and hallucinogenic properties. Reports of human deaths resulting from its ingestion are extremely rare.

Toxicity: due to its psychoactive and hallucinogenic properties, this fungus is inedible. There are records of fly agaric being used as a medicine.

Insecticide

Fly agaric was traditionally used as an insecticide. The cap broken up and sprinkled into saucers of milk. It's known to contain ibotenic acid, which both attracts and kills flies.

Facts

  • The 'spots' are remnants of the white veil of tissue that at first enclosed the young mushroom, and are sometimes washed off by the rain.
  • It was commonly found on Christmas cards in Victorian and Edwardian times as a symbol of good luck and its colours are thought to have been the inspiration for Santa Claus's red and white suit.
  • Widespread throughout Europe, Asia and North America, it has now also been introduced via pine seedlings to Australia and New Zealand.