Enchanting, beautiful and a little unearthly. The Amanita Muscaria, or Fly Agaric, is not the type of mushroom you should take home and eat. Nonetheless, this fairy tale fungus has an incredibly fascinating and mysterious history – filled with tales of religious ceremonies, fly-killing and the loveable Santa Claus.
The captivating Amanita Muscaria is native to temperate and boreal forests in the Northern Hemisphere – found under the shade of Birch, Pine and Spruce trees. Overtime, it unintentionally spread to the Southern Hemisphere. Today, it’s fairy tale like appearance feed’s the imagination of children (and adults) around the world.
The Amanita Muscaria is also known as “fly agaric” – this is due to its traditional use as an insecticide on organic farms. The toxic mushroom cap was commonly mixed with milk to attract and kill flies – an alternative method to chemical pesticides. Incredible, right?
The most recognised image of Amanita Muscaria is a bright red cap with white or yellow warts. Although, the caps may also appear as orange or yellow as it’s developing.
So, what’s the folktale behind this bewildering mushroom? And why should you avoid eating it?
Let’s jump in!
Amanita Muscaria In The Environment
Have you ever noticed when you’re out in the forest, these fairy tale fungi are always found beneath trees? Well, there’s a reason for that…
While Amanita Muscaria is believed to be toxic to humans – it has a beautiful, symbiotic relationship with trees. Amanita Muscaria is a mycorrhiza, which quite literally means fungus-root. It helps the tree uptake minerals, and in return, the mushroom mycelium receives carbohydrates from the tree that allows it to grow.
You know, it’s a bit of a tit for tat type deal.
In Victoria, Amanita Muscaria is known as a “weedy” fungus. You see, just like plant weeds, these foreign mushrooms are replacing native Australian fungi… Well, their growth under non-native trees is a telltale sign they’re not from around here, isn’t it?
While they’re beautiful to look at, in Australia, it’s best to keep these mysterious mushrooms inside of fairy tale books. You can help to stop the spread by cleaning your shoes after visiting the forest - and it’s best to avoid travelling from an infected area to a non-infected area.
So now you might be wondering, why did we dedicate any entire article to a fungi weed? Well, we simply can’t overlook its fascinating history…
Amanita Muscaria – The Santa Claus Mushroom?
It is a commonly held belief that the tradition of Christmas and Santa Claus came from St Nicholas. The generous man would deliver gifts to the homes of well behaved children on the early hours of December 25th. Seems plausible, right?
Well, others aren’t so convinced – and they’ve sought out ways to explain the jolly, bearded mans curious red and white attire.
And if you’ve ever found yourself in a conversation with your cynical uncle on Christmas day, perhaps they’ll try to tell you that Coco-Cola advertising in 1933 was what started the traditional image of Santa Claus. And while that does seem plausible – images of a red, plump man date back to far earlier than this, putting that argument to rest.
So, where does Amanita Muscaria come into the picture?
Well, fungi fans from around the world are tracing the story of Santa back to these toxic, hallucinogenic mushrooms.
The Amanita Muscaria has a long history of use in religious ceremonies amongst Siberian Shamans. They would use these poisonous mushrooms to achieve a trance-like state and spiritual growth. But how does Shaman’s taking ‘shrooms lead to Santa Claus?
Let’s take a look at some similarities…
- The religious ceremonies using Amanita Muscaria are linked back to Shamans from the Arctic Region in Siberia (is it a coincidence that Santa Claus is from the North Pole?)
- The Shaman would collect the Amanita Muscaria and give them out as gifts each year on the Winter Solstice (perhaps another coincidence, keep reading…)
- The Amanita Muscaria is incredibly toxic in their natural state – so to minimise these effects the Shaman would dry them out. This would often involve hanging them in a sock over the fireplace (sound familiar?)
- In the wild, the Amanita Muscaria is commonly found beneath pine trees, just like those red and white presents underneath the Christmas tree…
- When the Shaman would gather the Amanita Muscaria, they traditionally wore red and white outfits to symbolise the treasured mushroom.
- Yurts were the traditional form of housing during this time. But how would the Shaman deliver these potent mushrooms in the dead of winter, when doorways were covered with layers of snow? Well, they’d climb up onto the roof of the yurt, and pass them through the hole (or chimney) at the top.
- Caribou (or Reindeer) also go to great lengths to get a taste of Amanita Muscaria. They love the stuff. They can eat them without harmful effects – although it can often cause them to behave drunkenly and prance around (what were some of the reindeer names again… dancer and prancer?)
- And last but not least - Rudolf’s red nose looks an awful lot like an Amanita Muscaria mushroom cap.
So there you have it – the folktale that suggests the Shaman people began the tradition of Santa Claus through a potent and poisonous mushroom. Whether it’s true or not is highly debatable – but it’s a captivating story for Christmas lunch table nonetheless.
The Bottom Line: Is Amanita Muscaria A Poisonous Mushroom?
The Amanita Muscaria is a poisonous mushroom due to its toxins and chemical compounds. The main psychoactive ingredient is the compound muscimol – which works by inhibiting neuronal activity. In saying that, deaths from Amanita Muscaria are very rare; although there have been many cases of poisoning.
So the bottom line - don’t eat Amanita Muscaria – it’s serious stuff, folks.
But when you pass the curious fairy tale mushroom in the forest, take a moment to marvel at its fascinating history. From flytraps to psychedelic reindeer to its relationship with trees – the Amanita Mascaria is mysterious and beautiful in equal measure.