Amanita muscaria (and another similar variety, Amanita pantherina) is a mushroom of the agaricales order that appears in very broad habitats of the temperate and boreal zones of the Northern Hemisphere. It grows both in low altitudes and high mountainous areas, especially in coniferous forests such as fir and black pine, as well as in beech and birch forests. It usually appears during the end of summer months and is especially prevalent in autumn.
Its appearance is well known by the red color of the cap, covered with white dots, as well as the white stem.
This mushroom contains two psychoactive alkaloids, ibotenic acid and muscimol, in addition to many other alkaloids. It has been used since antiquity as an intoxicating substance as well as in shamanic contexts and divination.
The name Amanita muscaria comes from the paralyzing effect it has on some insects. It is known by other names such as hongo matamoscas in Spanish, falsa oronja, reig bord or farinera borda in Catalan, and fly agaric in English.
Historical records such as cave paintings, wood carvings and sculptures suggest that the psychoactive effects of A. muscaria have been known since ancient times on all continents, and similar practices have been observed regarding the use of A. muscaria in groups both geographically and culturally distant. A. muscaria has been used for religious, divination, therapeutic and social purposes.
The first evidence of the use of A. muscaria as an intoxicant is based on linguistic analyses of North Asian languages from 4000 BC, in which the roots of the words “drunkenness” and “amanita muscaria” appear to be the same. Polychromatic paintings have been found on Saharan rocks dating back to the Paleolithic period; depictions of what appear to be mushrooms of the Amanita genus, probably of the muscaria species.
The fungus grows naturally in the highlands of Mesoamerica and some mushroom myths and sculptures suggest the use of A. muscaria in Guatemala and southern Mexico at the time of creation of the Mayan civilization, around 1500 – 1000 BC. Some symbolic similarities have been found in Guatemalan and Asian populations relating to the belief that the mushroom is born in places where lightning strikes. These parallels could be explained by the migrations that likely occurred from the Asian continent to the Americas via the Bering Strait, thus the knowledge about the use of A. muscaria would have been relayed.
There is further evidence of its use in North America by the Dogrib Athabasca tribes in the Mackenzie Mountains in Canada as well as in the ceremonial practices of the Ojibwa and Ahnishinuabeg Indians in the Lake Michigan area of the United States, who referred to A. muscaria by the name of miskwedo and whose practices have survived until at least the end of the 20th century.
The first Western report on the use of A. muscaria was made by Filip Johan von Strahlenberg, a Swedish soldier who, in 1730, was imprisoned for twelve years in Siberia. He observed how A. muscaria was used as an intoxicant in shamanic contexts. Currently the Ostyak and Vogul tribes, west of Siberia, and the Kamchadal, Koryak, and Chukchi tribes in the east, continue to use A. muscaria in their rites.
These Siberian tribes relied exclusively on A. muscaria as an intoxicating substance until the introduction of alcohol by the Russians. They collected the Amanita, dried it in the sun and consumed it either whole, in a water or reindeer milk extraction, or mixed it with plant juices to sweeten its flavor.
These tribes also exhibited the practice of consuming the urine of people who had eaten A. muscaria, as they learned that the alkaloids of the Amanita are eliminated unchanged through urine, so they remain active and can be reused for up to four or five cycles.
As for Amanita pantherina, some native North American groups use it for magico-religious purposes in the western part of the state of Washington.
Chemical composition and Dosage
Amanita muscaria contains a high quantity of alkaloids and its pharmacology is complex and not fully understood. The most relevant alkaloids are ibotenic acid, muscimol, muscarine and muscazone.
For some time, muscarine was believed to be the psychoactive alkaloid of the Amanita, but in 1964 independent researchers in Japan, England, and Switzerland isolated ibotenic acid and muscimol, and discovered their psychoactive properties. Muscarine is the alkaloid responsible for undesired effects and the feeling of intoxication (discomfort, upset stomach and vomiting).
The quantity and proportion of alkaloids contained in the mushroom depends on several factors. Mushrooms collected at higher altitudes appear to have higher concentrations of ibotenic acid/muscimol, and those collected at lower altitudes, more muscarine.
Ibotenic acid is a rather unstable molecule, which is converted into muscimol by exposure to temperature and other factors. Thus, the dry mushroom is usually more powerful than the fresh specimen, because during the drying process the ibotenic acid is decarboxylated into muscimol. Ibotenic acid has stimulant effects, while muscimol has more depressant effects.
- Dosage of Ibotenic Acid: This alkaloid causes psychoactive effects in doses of 50 – 100mg.
- Dosage of Muscimol: Equivalent doses are in the ranges of 10 – 15mg. Thus muscimol is more potent than ibotenic acid.
- Dosage of Amanita muscaria: The concentrations of alkaloids are highly variable depending on the height and specific ecosystem where the mushroom grows, so the dosage is very difficult to determine and the doses indicated here are merely orientative.
Low dose: a small or medium size cap.
Average dose: from 1 to 3 medium size caps.
High dose: 2 or more medium size caps.
Both muscimol and ibotenic acid have psychotropic effects. After oral administration, the effects take quite a long time to appear, and it usually takes 2 to 3 hours to reach the maximum effects. The duration of the effects is about 6 or 8 hours, depending on the dose.
The nature of the effects can be highly variable, also depending on the dose, as well as the variety and personal differences.
Effects may include:
- A first phase in which there is stimulation, increased energy and muscular vigor (not always).
- A second phase in which there is decay, tranquility and drowsiness.
- A third phase in which the psychedelic effects appear and there may be experiences of a mystical nature, awareness of non-ordinary realities, blissful or terrifying sensations.
- Visual Distortions.
- Loss of balance.
- Muscle spasms.
- Experiences of a dream-like nature.
- Visual and auditory impairment.
- Difficulty concentrating on external tasks.
- Sensation of macropsia and/or micropsia (perceiving objects as either very large or very small).
- Nausea and vomiting.
Both A. muscaria and A. phanterina contain ibotenic acid and muscimol, although each species contains these active ingredients in different concentrations, so the intoxication is also different. A. muscaria contains more excitatory ibotenic acid and less of the depressant muscimol compared to A. pantherina. For this reason, poisonings with A. muscaria present with more confusion and agitation compared to A. pantherina poisonings, which most commonly present with comatose symptoms.
A. muscaria and the other varieties of Amanita are not controlled in most countries.
In the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, however, possession, purchase and sale are prohibited. In Romania, A. muscaria has also been prohibited since 2010, although previously it could be gathered and sold and was available in smart shops.
Health and Risk Reduction
It is essential to make accurate identifications of fungi, since there are different varieties that vary widely in potency, and there are other species that can be confused with Amanita muscaria, and especially with A. pantherina, that are lethal, as is the case with A. phalloides.
A. muscaria: can reach up to 18cm high, has a red cap (or orange in older specimens) and usually has white spots. The blades under the cap are white.
A. pantherina: similar to A. muscaria, but the cap usually has a color ranging from cream to brown. It can also be confused with A. rubescens (edible).
A. phalloides (FATAL): This highly poisonous mushroom has a whitish or greenish cap. It does not usually have white spots on its cap.
WAYS OF USE
A. muscaria has traditionally been washed and dried after collection, and the stem is usually discarded since it can contain a large amount of larvae. Drying is recommended to reduce intestinal discomfort. The dried mushroom can be eaten directly, cut up, or by making an infusion with hot water, filtering it and drinking the water. It seems that the second method reduces stomach discomfort.
The effects of A. muscaria can take up to 2 or 3 hours to appear. Being very careful with the amount ingested is recommended (no more than a small or medium cap), as is waiting a few hours to see the progression of the effects. The potency of the mushroom can be highly variable, so be careful with the dosage.
There is an anecdotal report of Mexican shamans using the cuticle (red skin of the cap), which is separated from the rest of the cap while the mushroom is fresh, allowed to dry and then smoked. The effects appear more quickly and their duration is shorter by this route, although there are no comprehensive descriptions of dosage or effects. It appears that the intensity is lower than when the mushroom is ingested orally.