By Paul Hill
At this time of year as I celebrate some of my favorite holidays my thoughts turn to mushrooms. Yes, some of us think about mushrooms all year long.
One of the most famous mushrooms in the world is a big mushroom with a red or orange cap and white warts. I hardly need to describe any more features; even if they don’t know its name, most people recognize it.
The mushroom in question is Amanita muscaria, the Fly Agaric, or the Fly Amanita. A recently coined name is Mario’s Mushroom after the title character in the Super Mario video games from Nintendo. Curiously, the inspiration for the Mario character was a Seattle developer named Mario Segale who was the landlord for Nintendo in Tukwila, Washington when they were developing the first game in that now famous franchise. He died just a few months ago on October 27th, 2018.
Maybe you are thinking this species’ fame also has something to do with the rock group Jefferson Airplane/Starship and magic mushrooms in San Francisco in the 1960s. Typically the term magic mushrooms refers to mushrooms which contain psilocybin, a hallucinogen. Amanita muscaria does not contain psilocybin. Its primary active ingredient is muscimol, which is psychoactive but not hallucinogenic; muscimol is correctly described as a dissociative, causing delirium and sedation. The lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, Grace Slick, didn’t help to clarify any confusion between psilocybin-containing mushrooms and the A. muscaria. She appreciated the red color and white spots of the A. muscaria, and like many visual artists before her and since, included the iconic mushroom in her art.
At this point, I must insert a warning and say that A. muscaria is very toxic. It contains ibotenic acid and other toxins; eating A. muscaria raw or improperly prepared is a very bad idea. Simply cooking it is insufficient to remove toxins. Moreover, different methods of preparation are necessary to obtain a psychoactive effect, or alternatively, to detoxify it to use in a meal. This article does not explain how to prepare Amanita muscaria.
The 20th Century is certainly not the beginning of recorded history of A. muscaria. If you ever listened to White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane, you know it references the story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. While much of Carroll’s book can be read as parody of various aspects of Victorian society, both the story and Grace’s song mention getting larger and smaller. Nineteenth century naturalist Mordecai Cubitt Cooke in his books The Seven Sisters of Sleep and A Plain and Easy Account of British Fungi recorded the distortions of the size of perceived objects while intoxicated by the fungus which may have influenced Mr. Carroll’s work. Apparently no one gave John Tenniel, the original illustrator of the Alice stories, any information about A. muscaria. Unlike many illustrators since, he did not depict any recognizable features of A. muscaria. I wonder what mushroom he was using as a model.
The trail of stories and art including Amanita muscaria doesn’t end there. In the 19th and 20th century a common depiction of A. muscaria is on holiday greeting cards – both New Year and Christmas cards.
Some say this famous mushroom is tied up in the various threads which influence the modern tales of Father Christmas/Santa Claus with his now red clothes and white trim. This explanation of the origins of parts of the Santa Claus story appears all over the web, so I hardly need to discuss it. You can read an NPR article with a discussion of those connections. I’ll let you do your own research and web searches to see what references you can find about the conjectured connection between Amanita muscaria and Santa Claus.
I finish with a real, not imaginary depiction of this famous “toadstool”, but I believe I captured a frog (Pacific Tree Frog, Pseudacris regilla) not a toad sitting on that A. muscaria.
May your holiday celebrations be filled with miracles, wonder, light, enjoyment, and mushrooms.