Botany

Mushroom Profiles Fly Agaric Amanita Muscaria



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The fly agaric, or fly Amanita, is an iconic mushroom known for its toxicity and hallucinogenic properties. This fairy tale mushroom was officially named and recorded by Swedish botanist Carl Linneus in 1753, where it was listed in his Species Plantarium - a binomial system for naming plants. Its Latin name ‘musca’ or ‘fly’ refers to its use as an insecticide, where small pieces are sometimes placed in a saucer of milk and used to lure flies to their death.

Appearance

The fly agaric is commonly yellow to red in colour and speckled with white wart-like spots. The caps are round when young and covered in a white and warty universal veil. This gradually expands to around 7 to 15cm across. As the caps mature, they become flat and can increase in size to around 25cm. In time, however, the distinctive white spots eventually drop off, or get washed off by the rain.

These colourful toadstools are commonly seen throughout the months of September to November, and can grow up to around 30cm in height - the stems being white and circled with concentric ridges towards the base.

The fly agaric also has tiny hair-like roots which attach themselves to tree roots. This enables them to siphon off vital nutrients from the tree - although this doesn’t actually harm the tree itself.

Biology

Fly agaric is a fungus and is therefore neither a plant nor an animal. It is unable to produce its own food through photosynthesis, as plants do, and actually takes all the food it requires from dead animals, plants or other fungi.

Geographical distribution

The fly agaric is commonly seen throughout the UK, but is also found in other parts of Europe, Iceland, North and South Africa, northern Asia, North America, Australia and New Zealand. The fly agaric flourishes in light soil and is commonly found living in pine woodland and around the base of birch trees. These toadstools grow solitary or in scattered groups, and in Australia the species is beginning to invade the rainforests where it may eventually start to kill off native species.

Common uses

Apart from being used as an insecticide since medieval times, the fly agaric is used in medicine, and forms a vital food source for certain larvae. It is also used by some people as a drug, like magic mushrooms, and has been used in religious and recreational drug, like magic mushrooms, and has been used in shamanistic rituals for many years.

Dangers of fly agaric

The bright colouring of the fly agaric mushroom acts as a warning. These mushrooms contain a small amount of the toxin muscarine, along with the alkaloids ibotenic acid, muscimol and muscazone. Side effects from ingesting these mushrooms include hallucinations, sweating, violent stomach upsets, and uncontrollable muscle spasms. Symptoms commonly occur after around 60 minutes of ingestion and usually peak within three hours - some side effects can, however, last as long as ten hours. These symptoms may be severe in some cases, but are not usually fatal.     

Other species

The Amanita is a large genus and almost worldwide in distribution; although around 30 of the species are actually found in Britain. Most of these species form a relationship with important forest fungi and tree roots. This genus actually includes well-known species such as A. rubescens, A. fulva and A. phalloides (which is extremely poisonous). Five of these species are actually on the Red Data List (2006) and many are little-known. Some Amanita are said to be quite safe to eat, but it is wise to avoid this genus altogether due to the range of different toxic metabolites that are present in them.

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