Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria) Mushrooms – A Cautionary Tale

Let me tell you a little story about a woman who accidentally went on an Amanita muscaria trip; I interviewed her in 2011 at the Sonoma County Mycological Association’s annual retreat near Occidental, California, and she told me straight off that “I’m not into that whole magic mushroom thing.” Treat it as you will: cautionary tale, weird anecdote, testament to the sometimes ill-advised bravery of wild mushroom hunters, or something else entirely. For me, the lesson is clear: trying to prepare Amanita muscaria as a gourmet wild mushroom is not on my bucket list.

Word to the Wise – Do Not Trifle With Amanita Muscaria

Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria
Amanita muscaria specimens from San Francisco-area mushroom hunting foray.

Our heroine is a glamorous and classy broad who’s into mushrooms. She must remain anonymous for all the right reasons, but I assure you that whatever she’s up to, it’s usually good. She’s Italian-American, and was raised to love porcini and Italian white truffles. She knows her Boletus (and Suillus and Leccinum too) inside and out and makes her own grappa. She’s also a responsible adult and a consummate professional in the medical field. However, she did accidentally trip on fly agaric mushrooms. At this point in our narrative, I will adopt the pseudonym Delilah for our heroine.

Delilah the mushroom huntress is bold enough to eat Amanita mushrooms and she field identifies coccora amanitas like it’s her job; coccora are prized wild edible mushrooms that share a lot of characteristics with death cap Amanitas and destroying angel Amanitas, two of the most poisonous mushrooms in the world.

Amanita Muscaria Characteristics

Amanita muscaria is known as the fly agaric because it attracts and kills flies, and it is the red mushroom with white spots on the cap that looks like it belongs on a towel in your grandmother’s kitchen or a 1980s arcade game featuring Italian plumbers.

A lot of the (small number of) people who eat the fly agaric mushroom are trying to get high, but some people view them as gourmet mushrooms that just need to be spruced up for the table. Some folks parboil Amanita muscaria in salted water in order to remove the psychoactive chemicals in them and make them into a tasty edible wild mushroom. Once you pour the water off, the fly agaric mushrooms can be cooked safely.

Let’s quickly review the psychoactive properties of Amanita muscaria: these mushrooms really pack a punch to the human brain. Primarily, ibotenic acid is the compound that makes the fly agaric hallucinogenic, with a compound called muscimol playing second fiddle. It has been used in religious ceremonies by shamans in Siberia for thousands of years, and many scholars believe its use as a god-conduit was far more widespread in ancient times.

The neurochemical consequences of eating fly agaric mushrooms (and a host of allied species, like the panther Amanita and the gemmed Amanita) seem to vary a great deal. Some report that the mushroom gives the user a profound sense of wellbeing, strength, and boundless energy, others recount prolonged episodes of confusion, racing thoughts, panic, and physical discomfort. In short, Amanita muscaria causes disassociation and it can make the user feel really good, really neutral, or really bad.

So let us return to Delilah. Like many Italian-Americans, Delilah loves Amanita mushrooms. She lived in the Santa Cruz mountains as a girl, and grew up hunting the woods of that southern bit of the coastal range that hugs the Pacific.

As a self-taught American mushroom hunter, I started out with a very deep respect for, and fear of, poisoning myself with Amanita mushrooms. Delilah, however, told me that until she was in high school, the very idea of mushroom poisoning was never addressed in her house. It was just assumed that people knew what they were doing.

Delilah’s family went mushroom hunting all the time and found edible Amanita mushrooms – coccora to be specific – brought them home, fried them in light batter, and enjoyed them with dinner. Her family did not worry about getting kidney or liver failure from eating wild Amanita mushrooms.

About a decade ago, Delilah was faced with a challenge. The fly agaric is one of the most plentiful Amanitas in Northern California, and since it’s both easy to spot and almost impossible to misidentify, Delilah decided to try denaturing the psychoactive compounds in a handful of Amanita muscaria, in hopes of enjoying a nice tasty mushroom snack without the attendant trip. She sliced her mushrooms and boiled them vigorously for about 5 minutes, strained off the red-stained water and rinsed the mushrooms in cool tap water, patted them down, battered them and fried them in butter and salt. They were delicious with a glass of chardonnay.

For 6 years, Delilah picked Amanita muscaria and ate it just like that. Not a single hallucination or strange, unwelcome body effect, just nice fried mushroom and some weird red parboil water to pour onto the compost pile. She even made it into a tradition: once a year, Delilah threw a pre-holiday dinner party for her lady friends, where they would all get very merry, eat and drink too much, and tell stories into the wee hours before donning their woman-in-holiday-mode skins and part ways until the coming January.

Before the party each year, Deliah cooked up a few slices of fly agaric, sipped a glass of good white, then set about making her house ready for guests. The 7th year into this wholesome routine, Delilah hit a snag. She munched her muscaria morsels without a second thought, set down her wine glass and went about some chores. Somewhere between putting out the cheese plate and restocking the TP in the downstairs bathroom, Something Happened.

The first thing she noticed were her hands, which all of a sudden seemed too powerful to be handling fragile Scotts Tissue rolls. She could crush them so easily, if she wanted to…it felt great, but also made her quite aware that she needed some fresh air. She stepped outside, and the late November night didn’t deliver the slightest chill to her. She stood on the porch, a slight quiver in her knees and eyeballs, trying to focus. After about 5 minutes of trying to forcibly re-enter the world of normal thought, Delilah realized that she’d grown to a rather unusual height. It wasn’t that she was really taller, but longer, a stretched version of herself that could tower over those wee concerns and considerations that took up so much of her time.

Wow, she thought. Those mushrooms just punched my card. “I simply can’t imagine throwing a party in this state,” she remembers saying out loud to her trippy self. “I might accidentally step on the table. Or on someone’s Cheshire kitty-tail. Don’t want that for me, don’t want that for nobody.” Delilah called her best friend and explained the situation as well as she could.

“Hey Mags, I’ve got a problem. I ate a ton of Amanita muscaria mushrooms and I’m tripping the eff out. It’s horrid. Can’t even find the wine key, much less our deck of Cards Against Humanity…Any chance you can find another plan for the girls tonight? You can? Great, I always knew you were a Blue Meanie vanquisher. OK I’m off to take care of the house plants. They’re a little peeved with me and I don’t know why.”

BFF was resourceful and redirected the party to a local Olive Garden, where many bread sticks were eaten and many salad bowls were bottomless. Happily, no real harm was done and Delilah was spared the impossible task of hosting people in her accidentally profound condition.

Apparently, that night was delightful and Delilah enjoyed herself thoroughly, slept well, and felt like a million bucks the next morning. It wasn’t delightful enough to try eating fly agaric mushrooms for the sake of fun, but it was nice enough that she had no fear or anxiety associated with Amanita muscaria.

A year later, Delilah found herself collecting some fly agarics. She had done some thinking and research since her last encounter with Amanita muscaria and decided that the potency of her last batch was a statistical abnormality. An outlier. Basically, the last specimens should not dissuade her from using the tried-and-true parboil and strain method to remove the psychoactive ibotenic acid and muscimol. Also, should it go wrong again, Delilah wasn’t worried about the consequences.

So she boiled, fried, and sampled the fly agaric mushrooms sparingly. This time around, she did not feel good. At all. No, this time the mushrooms filled Delilah with disassociation and confusion, fear and clenching guts. The fly agarics brought forth darkness, questions without answers, answers without questions, thoughts without language, and sensations without meaning. Basically, Amanita muscaria was bloody awful. BFF intervened again and saved the day, but extracted a promise: no more fly agarics, no matter how hardboiled they may be. Some things are more important than experimentation.

Delilah was true to her word. When she told me this story, she shook her head at her own foolhardiness and iterated, reiterated, and tri-iterated her strong opinion: Amanita muscaria is not a substitute for coccora, and the risk of these mushrooms is far greater than the reward.


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