Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Christmas Mushroom

Amanita muscaria -- a.k.a. Fly Agaric

Even though bright red amanitas appear to be dressed for Christmas, I never thought of them as ‘the Christmas Mushroom’ until I started reading about them.  If you Google for images of ‘Christmas mushroom,’ you’ll find all kinds of quaint drawings, cards, and ornaments featuring this beautiful mushroom.  The images are quite charming.  This mushroom is especially popular because it is supposed to bring good luck.  Some even believe the colors of Santa Claus’ suit were inspired by these mushrooms. 

I also learned there is a common name for Amanita muscaria – ‘fly agaric,’ so named because it used to be used as an insecticide when sprinkled on open containters of milk.  Way back about 1256 Albertus Magnus documented its use in his “De Vegetabilibus.” For some reason I think ‘fly agaric’ sounds gooey and squishy so I'll stick with 'Amanita muscaria.’

I grew up thinking all amanitas are deadly poisonous – some of them certainly are, but this mushroom seldom is.   Note ‘seldom.’  The best mushroom books warn people about trying any amanita.  In my mind they are all toxic.  And if you see another animal eating one, remember they have different digestive systems than we do. 
The first time I wondered how poisonous the red amanitas are, was years ago at our local craft fair.  I was selling notecards and among them I had an Amanita muscaria.  The card was black and white, but the distinctive white spots quickly identified it as Amanita muscaria.  We have a lot of hippie types around here.  One of them came up to my booth and winked at me.  He said something like, “Pretty cool mushroom, isn’t it?”  I’m immediately sensed there was more to this mushroom than I realized……, but tripping out isn’t my idea of pleasure, so I just passed it off as an interesting comment. 

Sometime later I verified these amanitas are sometimes used for their hallucinogenic effects, but that bit of information is pretty dull compared to the whole story.  They are also used as an entheogen.  In case you are wondering, I never heard of that word either.  An entheogen is a chemical substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context (my thanks to Wikipedia).  This is where it gets interesting. 

There is a long history of people in Sibera eating Amanica muscria.  In some parts imbibing in Amanita muscaria was limited to use by Shamans, but in other parts laypeople knew a good thing too.  The mushroom needs careful preparation, probably to reduce their toxic properties, and then were eaten by the shaman.  He enjoyed a trace state ….. and then collected his urine for the next person!  His urine may even have been more potent than the first dose.  And so it went.  The urine was collected again and again; up to five times!  That tid bit of information comes from Filip Johann van Strahlenberg, a Swedish prisoner of war in the early eighteenth century.   

Other people in Siberia found a similar way to trip out.  They watched for the bright yellow stains of caribou urine in the snow.  Caribou like Amanita muscria too.  Drinking that yellow snow works too.  Another, recent, report by Andy Letcher describes how reindeer herders feed their reindeer Amanita muscaria, collect the urine, boil it, and trip out drinking that.  See http://andy-letcher.blogspot.com.au/2011/09/taking-piss-reindeers-and-fly-agaric.html

Hummmmm.  I think I stick to a little white wine or egg nog and brandy, and while I look forward to it I’ll relate one other bit of information about Amanita muscria. 

While researching this post I stumbled upon “Spore Prints: Bulletin of the Puget Sound Mycological Society, #511" ……and there was my artwork of a chickaree (a western cousin of the red squirrel) eating an Amanita muscaria  …. the toadies never gave me a credit for my art work, nor did they bother to ask to use it.  I guess it’s my Christmas present to them.  (I did get an apology and maybe the credit will be forthcoming.)  This time I'm posting it with my name on it! 

 I do hope the chickaree enjoyed his dinner.

And now I'll end by saying

Merry Christmas!


  1. Wow, I learn so much by reading your blog -- perhaps more than I want to about certain mushrooms. ;-) And shame on the mycological society! Happy holidays, Elva!


  2. Very beautiful paintings and an interesting post! Thank you, Elva and I look forward to your field notes next year, too. Have wonderful holidays and a Happy New Year! Best wishes, Sadami

  3. My favourite mushroom and what a lot you managed to find out about it, I've always thought it looked christmassy too. Thank you for sharing with us and have a wonderful Christmas. Xx

  4. Have always loved your little chickaree and the red mushroom. You found some great background on
    this amanita. I was so thrilled when I found a grouping of my own on a trip to the South Slough. Think I'll pass on the urine trip though. This blog is a gift to us all throughout the year.
    Merry Christmas, Elva

  5. Love your sketches of this colorful mushroom. Would love to see this in person. Shame on that society stealing your art work without even giving you credit. Glad you let them know.

  6. I have to laugh...I NEVER know what I'm going to learn when I visit your blog, Elva! I love that you continually surprise me. Reindeer and caribou urine...who knew?!

    Of course, if I were in Siberia—year round—I might be willing to drink urine if I could mind-trip to a warm place!

    Hope you and yours had a fabulous Christmas and I wish you the very best in the new year!