One fall morning, while walking my dog, I noticed some mushrooms with bright red caps and white spots, the kind you might expect to see in fairy tales.
I don’t know much about mushrooms, although I enjoy eating the ones I find in the supermarket or in a restaurant. Based on its colouring, physical features and location, I think it was Amanita muscaria. The Pacific Northwestern variety is known as Amanita muscaria flavivolvata. Another species called Amanita parcivolvata looks similar, but occurs in the eastern and southeastern North America.
A. muscaria grows near evergreen and deciduous trees in temperate and subarctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere, and has been spotted growing in the garden at Buckingham Palace. The ones that caught my eye were on a boulevard near a birch, a pine and some oaks.
Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of certain members of the fungal kingdom. They appear briefly in the autumn when temperatures drop and humidity increases. In Amanita, as in other ectomycorrhizal fungi, the main organism is connected to an amazing underground network of filaments that link the fine root tips of various plant families together for their mutual benefit.
When these mushrooms emerge, they are at first enclosed in a membrane called the universal veil. As the mushroom gets bigger, it outgrows the veil, leaving remnants behind as a cup at the base of the stalk, a ring around the stem and the distinctive light-coloured flakes on the cap.
The common name for this mushroom is Fly Agaric. “Fly” refers to the practice in some European countries of crumbling the caps of this mushroom into saucers of milk to attract and kill flies. The mushroom contains toxins that make flies drowsy and collapse. (Muscaria comes from the Latin musca for fly.)
I wonder if this practice harmed any thirsty cats, since A. muscaria are supposed to be lethal to pets? My dog is a scavenger but fortunately, did not show any interest in the mushrooms. Maybe the spots and bright colouring help animals remember to avoid them.
In humans, A. muscaria is not usually fatal, but it tends to cause severe stomach upset and sometimes hallucinations. So whereas animals learn to avoid them, some humans actively seek them out. But be aware, they are not the same as the species more commonly known as magic mushrooms, Psilocybe cubensis, and others of that genus. A. muscaria contains the toxic chemicals muscimol and ibotenic acid, which affect the central nervous system of humans. Muscimol mimics a brain-signalling chemical known as GABA, which inhibits neuronal activity, and can result in a loss of coordination and/or a decrease in anxiety, among other symptoms.
According to one anthropological theory, late in December, shamans in Siberia dried these mushrooms and delivered the red and white presents through openings in the tops of the snowbound homes of villagers. Ring any (jingle) bells? It’s been speculated that flying reindeer may have come from the resulting hallucinations. I'm not sure I should ask for comments on this topic.