The Amanita muscaria, also known as the fly agaric and fly amanita, is the most famous and conspicuous among poisonous mushrooms. Its toxicity, truth be told, is not among the most dangerous in the realm of mushrooms, but its hallucinogenic effect has made it popular.
Due to this characteristic, this toxic fungus has been used since ancient times in magical-religious rituals or for unconventional purposes. For instance, the Viking populations of Northern Europe would ingest it before battle, believing it could enhance the psycho-physical performance of warriors and induce a state of authentic frenzy.
Let’s learn more about this fungus, how to confidently recognize it, and the potential consequences of accidental ingestion. To prevent this from happening, our advice for those seeking mushrooms is to always verify their edibility with the relevant health authorities.
Origin of the Name “Amanita muscaria”
The Amanita muscaria is a fungus from the Amanitaceae family, Amanita genus. Its scientific name comes from the medieval practice of using this fungus as a fly repellent. It would be soaked in milk with added sugar to attract and poison flies. Even the common Italian names, “ovolo malefico” and “ovolaccio,” denote a negative connotation. Another fungus from the Amanita genus is known as the “good egg,” the Amanita caesaria. This, unlike the former, is a truly delicious edible mushroom. Let’s now see the distinctive features of the Amanita muscaria, which will help us differentiate it from other species.
Characteristics of Amanita muscaria
The Amanita muscaria has a characteristic cap shape, initially ovoid and then flat-convex. It has a slightly sticky texture and is colored red-orange, red-cinnabar, or scarlet. Moreover, its entire surface is covered with prominent warts of various shapes, white or pale yellow in color.
The gills of the Amanita muscaria are very thick and dense, white or slightly yellowish towards the stem. They are wide and ventricose (inflated) near the hooked stem.
The stem is white, covered with small flakes that disappear over time. It starts out solid and becomes hollow. It’s ovate-bulbous at the base and has several series of circular scales. The ring is positioned at the upper part of the stem. It’s white or slightly yellowish, striated, with remnants of the universal veil along the edge. The flesh of this fungus is white just under the cap’s cuticle and orange-yellow in depth. It has no distinctive odor or taste. The spores are white and smooth. To distinguish Amanita muscaria from the caesaria (good egg), it’s enough to observe the gills and the stem. In the muscaria, these are always white, while in the caesaria, they are always yellow. This distinction is important because Amanita muscaria can lose the white warts on the cap over time, which are its distinctive feature.
Habitat and Distribution of fly agaric
The Amanita muscaria is a mycorrhizal fungus that appears from late summer to autumn. It’s typically found in coniferous forests, as well as deciduous forests (where you can also find porcini mushrooms). It’s widespread throughout the national territory.
Content and Toxicity of fly agaric
As mentioned, Amanita muscaria is a poisonous mushroom species. It contains a highly dangerous toxin called muscarine. Although it’s present in the fungus in minimal amounts, muscarine was first extracted from this amanita. Other active compounds include: ibotenic acid, muscimol, and muscazone. These molecules are psychoactive and cause hallucinogenic effects. They induce a state of intoxication similar to that of ethyl alcohol. The symptoms typically involve excitement, sedation, hallucinations, and spasmodic movements.
It’s important to underline that Amanita muscaria is not among the most poisonous mushroom species. It’s rarely fatal (massive consumption is required), and it leads to toxic syndromes with a short latency period. These are linked to symptoms appearing 30 minutes to 6 hours after ingestion and usually resolve within 24 hours. Consequently, it poses a low life-threatening risk. The ingestion of Amanita muscaria can result in various short-latency syndromes. Let’s explore them.
First and foremost, the gastrointestinal syndrome can occur. This manifests with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and dehydration. It’s the most common syndrome when consuming poisonous mushrooms (or, in general, toxic plants) and can be caused by numerous species. The responsible active compounds are multiple and not always known. Symptoms occur immediately after consumption or, at most, within 3-4 hours, and are proportional to the ingested quantity. Vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain usually subside within 24-48 hours, although rehydration is necessary.
Upon ingesting Amanita muscaria, the pantherine syndrome is typical. Symptoms of this intoxication include drowsiness, restlessness, disorientation, and seizures. The severity varies based on the quantity of ingested toxins (ibotenic acid, muscimol, and muscazone). Affected individuals exhibit clinical symptoms ranging from dizziness, staggering, euphoria, tremors, confusion, to convulsive episodes accompanied by hallucinations and lethargy.
Amanita muscaria can also lead to the so-called muscarinic syndrome. This syndrome is caused by muscarine and is characterized by headache, abdominal pain, excessive salivation, intense sweating, tearing, tremors, and bradycardia. These symptoms appear 15 to 60 minutes after ingestion. The treatment for affected individuals, in addition to gastric decontamination, involves the use of atropine.
Pharmacia: Toxicological and pharmacological profile of Amanita muscaria (L.) Lam. – a new rising opportunity for biomedicine.