The fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) is everywhere. Just this morning, I walked past a bug collection kit in Target fashioned in the image of the unforgettable red and white-speckled mushroom. It appears as garden statues, tea infusers, Halloween costumes, wrapping paper, and cell phone cases. In mass media, it features in the Smurfs, the Johnny Depp version of Alice and Wonderland, Fantasia (without its speckles or “warts”), and, in reverse—where the cap is white, and the warts are red—as the iconic Super Mario mushroom. And while most people use the phrase “magic mushroom” to refer to the far less colorful Psilocybe cubensis, discussions of that well-known psychedelic by text are almost always marked by the Amanita emoji: 🍄.
Despite this ubiquity in representation, A. muscaria is very poorly understood. Mycologist Paul Stamets dubbed Amanita “one of the most dangerous mushrooms anyone can eat.” Indeed, while people eat this mushroom for its psychoactive effects, it poses unique safety concerns that are uncharacteristic of classical psychedelics—concerns that make having a sitter and a safe environment more critical when engaging with this mushroom.
In fairy tales and psychedelic lore, A. muscaria has a coquettish and lackadaisical reputation. Commentary on A. muscaria is littered with unresolved debates, inaccuracies, speculations, and rumors. In fact, almost everything about this fungus is a bone of contention. As Andy Letcher tells us in his highly entertaining Shroom, Gordon Wasson and Terence McKenna, famous for their Psilocybe enthusiasm, lamented their underwhelming encounters with the fly agaric. In Soma, Wasson puts it this way:
“The results were disappointing. […] We felt nauseated and some of us threw up. We felt disposed to sleep, and fell into a deep slumber from which shouts could not rouse us, lying like logs, not snoring, dead to the outside world. When in this state I once had vivid dreams, but nothing like what happened when I took the Psilocybe mushrooms in Mexico.”
On the other hand, Wasson immediately thereafter records the experience of a friend whose Amanita-inspired elation “was nothing like the alcoholic state; it was infinitely better, beyond all comparison.” Other stories are less innocent—the mushroom’s been accused of inspiring the “berserk” behavior of the Berserkers, and people recount injuries sustained during Amanita trips.
The mushroom presents us with a long list of fascinating issues: its pharmacology, its cultural representation and role in folklore, and its ostensible status as an ancient religious catalyst, to name just a few. Yet, my aim here is to provide clarity or at least to show where the lack of clarity lies, concerning the most common questions about this one-of-a-kind fungus.
A Brief Amanita muscaria History
The first reference scholars have found to A. muscaria comes from a kind of medieval encyclopedia of plants by St. Albertus Magnus. Writing in the thirteenth century, the theologian, philosopher, scientist, and mentor to St. Thomas Aquinas had this to say about the mushroom:
In the areas where we live, a fungus is found that is broad and dense, having a redness on the surface; and it has on that redness many raised blisters, whereof some are broken, and others are not: and this [fungus] is lethal, and kills on the spot; and it is called muscarum, because when it is crushed up in milk, it kills flies [muscas].”[Translation graciously provided by medievalist colleague, Dr. William H. Campbell.]
While the fly agaric does not kill humans, its use in exterminating flies is so traditional as to determine its name in several languages: Tue-mouche, muchomor, Мухомор, and matamoscas, all of which mean ‘fly-killer’ in French, Polish, Russian, and Spanish, respectively, as well as the amusingly euphemistic Fliegenschwamm (German for ‘fly sponge’).
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Amanita muscaria, Santa & Siberian Shamans
Scholars and articles online often tout A. muscaria’s traditional usage by Siberian shamans. However, what frequently goes unsaid is that Siberia is not a monolith. Currently, more than 30 cultures are indigenous to the Siberian arctic, and at least three have a traditional relationship with A. muscaria.
Some commentators have also suggested that our understanding of Santa Claus derives from shamans in this region. This idea was first proposed by poet Robert Graves, promptly taken up by ethnobotanist and psychedelic pioneer Jonathan Ott, and since developed by other writers. In the most striking versions of the view, Santa is an icon of the mushroom itself. Yet it’s hard to find definitive historiographic evidence for a link between the fly agaric and Father Christmas.
Amanita muscaria & Berserkers
As a second hypothesis goes, berserkers—medieval Norse warriors famed for ecstatic rhapsodies of violence—were under the Fly Agaric’s spell. In 1784, Samuel Ödman first proposed that fly agaric consumption fueled the “ecstatic” part of these sprees. This hypothesis is contentious, however. Other scholars suggest different catalysts, for example, the nightshade Hyoscyamus niger. In the end, finding truth in the dizzying array of proposals about Amanita’s history is difficult without time travel.
Is Amanita muscaria Psychedelic?
Amanita muscaria is different from classical psychedelics: psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and mescaline. There’s no doubt that the mushroom is psychoactive—it’s a deliriant and a hallucinogen—but A. muscaria may not have the “mind-manifesting” qualities that classical psychedelics provide.
More importantly, A. muscaria poses different risks than classical psychedelics. The mushroom is considered non-fatal, yet A. muscaria can cause deep sleep, convulsions, and illness, particularly in high doses. A person’s ability to remain in control over their behavior can be limited in a dreamy yet agitated Amanita delirium, making them more prone to accidental harm and injury.
The active chemical compounds in A. muscaria work differently than classical psychedelics. Generally speaking, most classical psychedelics contain compounds that engage serotonin receptors in the human brain. The psychoactive components in A. muscaria—muscimol and ibotenic acid—likely have different mechanisms of action: they resemble the neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate, respectively. As such, the psychoactive experience of A. muscaria is markedly different from what we normally think of when we think of “psychedelics.”
Amanita muscaria Active Compounds
At least three potential active compounds may contribute to A. muscaria’s combined physical effects and altered states of consciousness: muscarine, muscimol, and ibotenic acid. In the past, scientists thought that muscarine was the source of the mushroom’s psychotropic effects. Yet, research suggests that muscarine concentrations may be minimal in A. muscaria, although the concentration of this toxin can vary from mushroom to mushroom.
When muscarine concentrations are high, it can cause severe illness. The effects of muscarine can include profuse sweating, nausea, diarrhea, salivation, and pupil constriction which can temporarily affect a person’s ability to see. Research suggests that the toxin affects the parasympathetic nervous system—the rest-and-digest system—and does not cross the blood-brain barrier. As such, muscarine is not hallucinogenic and not the likely cause of A. muscaria’s psychoactive effects.
Instead, two other compounds are responsible for Amanita’s strange trip: muscimol and ibotenic acid. Muscimol is a central nervous system depressant that may engage GABAa receptors. Ibotenic acid is stimulating and engages glutamate receptors. GABA is a calming neurotransmitter while glutamate is excitatory. Muscimol is considered the more potent of the two compounds while ibotenic acid is considered a neurotoxin.
Whether or not ibotenic acid causes brain damage in humans is unknown. In neurological research, it is used as a brain-lesioning agent, injected directly into the brains of lab animals to damage brain cells. Although concerning, the way ibotenic acid is used in scientific research—by injection into the brain—is different from the way the compound is processed by the human body.
Ibotenic acid mostly decarboxylates—breaks down—into muscimol upon digestion. A minority lingers in the system undercarboxylated. Nevertheless, the safety of ibotenic acid remains a point of contention among Amanita scholars and enthusiasts. The role of the fungus’ many other compounds remains insufficiently studied.
Is A. Muscaria Poisonous?
While the chemicals in A. muscaria probably won’t kill you, they can certainly make you feel very sick—especially when eaten raw and/or in high doses. Scientists wrongly classified the fungus as a deadly poison due to the toxins present in Amanita species. This misidentification proves intractable. A perplexingly inaccurate skull and crossbones still sit next to the A. muscaria name in nearly every mushroom field guide (an icon that often accompanies Psilocybes as well). Some commenters proposed 15 to 20 dried caps as a theoretically lethal dose, although the amount of ibotenic acid and muscarine in Amanita mushrooms varies from specimen to specimen.
It’s also worth mentioning that there is some debate as to whether or not muscarine alone explains all of the distressing physical side effects that can occur after ingesting Amanita muscaria. Feeney says there’s discussion about whether these symptoms are caused by muscarine or by other muscarine-like compounds (to say nothing of the commentators who offer the mushroom’s ibotenic acid as a possible culprit). That’s probably because, although muscarine does cause such effects, its presence in the fly agaric can be low.
The Amanita muscaria Trip
The Amanita experience holds meaning and spiritual significance in some cultural traditions, as well as for some individual explorers. Yet, the mushroom is distinct from classic psychedelics. Many of those who ingest the fly agaric report having colorful visions and religious or spiritual insights. But, Amanita’s visions and insights commonly—though not exclusively—occur in dreams once the user has fallen asleep. Sleep is a common occurrence after A. muscaria. Such lethargy is rarely associated with classical psychedelics.
Moreover, the A. muscaria experience lacks what scholar and author Kevin Feeney calls the “electrical” quality of psychedelics. The geometric overlays and light shows common with tryptamines and ergolines—the active compounds in psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, respectively—are not the Amanita stock-in-trade.
Disassociation is a hallmark of the fly agaric experience. In his essay on the subjective effects of Amanita for the Fly Agaric Compendium, Feeney adduces a particularly evocative Erowid account of a user who “thought I was a deer” and ran through a forest, dropping out of awareness. Upon recovering under a tree with little memory of what had taken place, the user had missing shoes, ripped clothes, and a giant scratch, as if from an animal. Retracing the steps the following day revealed the travel distance to be six miles, spanning five barbed wire fences.
Looping is also a common feature of the trip. This includes both the kind where something in the experience happens over and over again, like a hallucination on replay, and the kind where the user does something over and over again. Feeney cites Paul Stamets, who, after ingesting a large dose of Amanita pantherina, which contains muscimol like A. muscaria, repeatedly dropped his expensive camera until it was destroyed, unsure that any single drop had really happened and recurrently desiring to act out the uncertain memory.
What users experience with one dose of A. muscaria may vary from what they experience with another. Some who try A. muscaria report not experiencing much of anything at all. The Amanita trip is a mixed bag and unpredictable—and sometimes not safe.
Although some Amanita experiences—like Wasson’s friend mentioned above—may be pleasant and hold personal or cultural significance, accidents and injuries do occur. These accidents and injuries may be more likely with high doses of the mushroom in unsupervised settings. In a podcast interview recalling the camera incident, Stamets tells another story in which a man repeatedly jumped off a bridge, allowing his body to slam into the ground after a high dosage of Amanita mushrooms. Stamets continues: “I definitely advise not doing this—I always thought that if I was ever called as an expert witness, having these experiences, and someone was watching Tales from the Crypt on TV and then they saw a knife… It causes temporary insanity.”
For Feeney, the fly agaric experience is best described as a potpourri of effects from many different drug categories. He lists the mushroom’s possible—though not guaranteed—effects in a Venn Diagram: deliriant, depressant, disassociative, psychedelic, and stimulant. What users experience with one dose of A. muscaria may vary from what they experience with another. Some who try A. muscaria report not experiencing much of anything at all. Thus, the Amanita trip is a mixed bag and unpredictable—and sometimes not safe.
Additionally, the fly agaric’s effects are not limited to the repetitive delirium it produces in the mind. Some of the known physical symptoms of Amanita are excessive sweating and salivating, diuresis, and blurred vision. Gastrointestinal discomfort is an especially common result, even more so than with traditional psychedelics. And the discomfort can take on a more wrenching intensity, causing users to feel they have been punched in several normally unreachable places at once.
Feeney’s recommendation is “for anyone experimenting with this mushroom to have a ‘sitter’ to help avoid and prevent injury.”
Feeney’s recommendation is “for anyone experimenting with this mushroom to have a ‘sitter’ to help avoid and prevent injury.” A sitter may also need to provide blankets and warmth if someone is outdoors and falls into a temporary coma, which puts them at greater risk of hypothermia. Oh, and “you will probably want extra clothes and towels nearby, as well as access to a shower” to address potential chills and profuse sweating.
Amanita muscaria vs. Psilocybe
It’s important to remember that while A. muscaria is psychoactive, it is notably different from psilocybin mushrooms. Amanita’s psychoactive effects are distinct and unlike what one might expect from Psilocybe and other psychedelic fungi. Amanita is also prepared and dosed differently: Standard dosages of magic mushrooms don’t apply to the fly agaric.
A. muscaria doesn’t contain psilocybin or psilocin: It contains muscimol and ibotenic acid, which have different mechanisms of action. Psilocybin shows promise for various potential health benefits, including the treatment of end-of-life depression and substance dependence. It’s also associated with occasioning mystical experiences, which study participants have ranked among their most meaningful life experiences, alongside marriage. Neither muscimol nor ibotenic acid is associated with the same therapeutic benefits as psilocybin, although Amanita does have a history of use in shamanic practice.
Additionally, Psilocybe and other psilocybin mushrooms lack the deliriant, depressant, and disassociative properties of Amanita muscaria. Waking up under a strange tree after running five miles through the forest and scaling five barbed wire fences without remembering is an unlikely experience during a psilocybin trip.
The Safe(r) Way to Use Fly Agaric
For more information on safe use, we recommend reading the Fly Agaric Compendium, edited by Kevin Feeney, which contains more than we can summarize in this article.
It’s no secret: A. muscaria can inspire some challenging trips. But, an active community of consumers and enthusiasts celebrates this iconic fungus. Although the Amanita experience can be unpredictable, safe-use practices can reduce harm and limit opportunities for accidents and injuries. When prepared properly, some myco-enthusiasts even eat Amanita as a non-intoxicating edible mushroom (just make sure you boil it enough—and properly). Enthusiasts of its psychoactive potential have developed a series of best practices for safe(r) tripping.
Amanita experiences always come with risk. Like any other substance, the only way to avoid risk is by not eating it at all. But, if you choose to engage with the mushroom, one scholar recommends “developing a relationship with Amanita muscaria before attempting to dive into a major experience.” Starting with a low dose and increasing incrementally over time is a standard approach for engaging with psychoactive substances. Larger doses of A. muscaria are more likely to cause intense experiences with greater safety concerns.
Develop a relationship with Amanita muscaria before attempting to dive into a major experience.
Having a sober “sitter” is particularly important with this mushroom, particularly with larger doses. Amanita can inspire a dream-like state, and one may be generally unaware of their surroundings while under this mushroom’s influence. A sitter should help their counterpart avoid dangerous situations that may lead to accidental injury or death, like walking out in traffic or falling asleep out in the cold. Many Amanita enthusiasts prefer to work with this mushroom in smaller doses, which may be more therapeutic. Muscimol is used in the study of stress, anxiety, and sleep in rodent research.
Amanita muscaria Dosage
Dosing Amanita is no easy task. Enthusiasts recommend between one and three grams of prepared mushroom as a low or therapeutic dose. A threshold psychoactive dose is generally around five grams of prepared mushroom, but starting small is essential with this fungi. These recommendations come with a significant caveat: Mushrooms growing in the same environment can differ in potency by a factor of four or more, an Amanita scholar told DoubleBlind.
So, three grams of one A. muscaria mushroom might be mild, while three grams of another might be considerably more active, making it difficult to reliably predict how strong your psychoactive experience will be. (Our commenter explained: “For those with Psilocybe as a reference, one might consider the difference between two and eight grams, or four and 16 grams. This is not a mistake one wants to make.”) To average Amanita’s potency, enthusiasts may collect, dry, and mix together many different A. muscaria samples.
How to Prepare Amanita muscaria
It’s not recommended to eat A. muscaria or any of its variants fresh. Fly agaric mushrooms are typically dried before consumption. They’re then either consumed dried or made into tea—but not your average tea. Amanita tea is often made by measuring out an appropriate dosage of dried mushroom, mixing it with citric acid, and simmering for two to three hours. The pH of the concoction should be below 3.0 during the brewing process, which is intended to convert the ibotenic acid into muscimol. The latter compound is more potent but may lack the GI distress and neurotoxic risk of ibotenic acid—a topic of debate in the Amanita community.
Enthusiasts hoping to enjoy A. muscaria as a non-psychoactive edible mushroom typically boil fresh A. muscaria in a large volume for a lengthy time, twice, discarding the water each time. They then cook the mushroom as a normal edible mushroom. It’s worth noting, however, that there’s still a risk of intoxication with this method.
Fly Agaric Identification
Before diving into identification, let me say: Everything in this article is intended as information, not instruction. Mushroom identification is a craft that takes substantial time to develop; seasoned hunters advise searching with care and in consultation with a competent forager.
Fortunately, the fly agaric’s large, bright red and white-speckled cap makes it difficult to miss. Its cap can be anywhere from eight to 20 centimeters and, depending on age and subspecies, it may feature yellow or orange coloring.
A mature A. muscaria has an annulus or ring, a skirt-like or collar-like formation around the stem. It is a remnant of its partial veil—sometimes called an inner veil—which connects the cap and stipe (stem) during maturation to protect the developing gills. The veil stretches and breaks as the fruit body grows, leaving an annulus behind, though, sometimes, the annulus falls off, leaving the stem bare.
Amanita mushrooms also have a volva at the base of the stipe. The volva is a cup-like structure at the base of the stem, a remnant of its universal veil (outer veil). The universal veil envelopes the entire fruit body in its infancy, giving it the appearance of an egg. As the mushroom grows, the veil breaks apart. The result is a volva at the bottom and little “speckles” or “warts” on the cap, like pieces of a broken eggshell. This process is how A. muscaria gets its spots. In other Amanita species, the volva breaks differently and does not leave warts or speckles on the cap.
Fly Agaric Habitat
A. muscaria is typically wild-foraged, not cultivated. The fungus is ectomycorrhizal, which means it survives only in a symbiotic relationship with a nearby plant. The most common hosts are trees: birches (Betula spp.), pines (Pinus spp.), spruces (Picea spp.), firs (Abies spp.) and larches (Larix spp.), according to biologist József Geml et al/. Yet, a wide variety of species are compatible with A. muscaria: The mushroom is partial to certain shrubs and other plants in certain climates and environmental conditions.
A. muscaria mostly grows under the boughs of trees in large forests of compatible hosts. In terms of geographical locale, Geml et al. tell us that: “A. muscaria is native to temperate or boreal forest regions of the Northern Hemisphere; however, it has been introduced to New Zealand, Australia, South America, and South Africa.” So, almost everywhere.
Amanita muscaria Look-alikes
Remaining mindful of habitat, region, and the season is vital when identifying Amanita or any other fungus, as these characteristics help differentiate one species from another. A. muscaria grows on the ground rather than on wood itself, particularly under pine, spruce, birch, and oak trees.
Fly Agaric Varieties
Below are brief descriptions of three common A. muscaria subspecies and their look-alikes, summarized from Feeney’s compendium. As mycologist Caine Barlow, Ph.D., mentions, A. muscaria is a “species complex”—a group of organisms that could alternatively be different species or different varieties of the same species. Taxonomists may eventually classify one or more of these three as separate species.
- Cap color: The “true” A. muscaria ranges from red to orangish-yellow, depending on age and exposure to rain and sun; warts are white, not cream or yellow.
- Region: natively Eurasian and Alaskan, but now introduced to (and invasive in) Australia and South America
- Look-alikes: A. regalis, A. caesarea, A. parcivolvata, A. flavoconia
- Cap Color: Similar to A. muscaria, var. muscaria, except that warts are cream-colored.
- Region: North American pacific coast and the Rocky Mountains from Alaska to Costa Rica
- Look-alikes: A. chrysoblema, A. aprica, which contain the same toxins as A. muscaria.
- Cap Color: Cap is anywhere from yellow to orangish-yellow; warts are white.
- Region: NE North America from Quebec and Newfoundland to Michigan and North Carolina
- Look-alikes: A. crenulata, A. flavoconia, A. frostiana, A. gemmata, A. persicina, A. praecox, A. wellsii
The above look-alikes are merely a sampling of mushrooms with similar morphology to the fly agaric. According to Barlow, any red, orange, or yellow species in the Amanita genus, with or without warts (since rain sometimes washes them off), can be confused for A. muscaria. And, crucially, the toxins in some of these species, though technically non-fatal, have some nasty gastrointestinal effects.
One mushroom that shares some features with A. muscaria is the European mushroom A. pantherina, an Amanita sp. with a dark to light brown or tannish brown cap and white, cream, or buff-colored warts. The species has a similar pharmacological profile to that of A. muscaria and, like its red and white-speckled cousin, is non-fatal. Still, there are two reasons for caution here: First, the alkaloid (psychoactive) concentration is much higher in A. pantherina than in A. muscaria—up to three times as high or even higher. This strength—along with other toxins— can contribute to unpredictable and difficult experiences, including sickness and delirium.
Second, Barlow mentions that A. pantherina has deadly look-alikes; indeed there are dozens of deadly Amanita species. As such, he advises against foraging for A. pantherina altogether. Ditto for white-capped psychoactive Amanitas, such as A. chrysoblema. Chrysoblema contains the same chemistry as A. muscaria, but the former can easily be confused with A. virosa (“European Destroying Angel”) or another fatal species.
North American mushrooms include Amanita pantherinoides and others. iNaturalist lists more A. muscaria look-alikes.
Is Amanita muscaria Legal?
Amanita muscaria is legal in most places—but certainly not all. Feeney’s Fly Agaric Compendium proposes three potential reasons why A. muscaria is, by and large, unregulated: “(1) they are generally considered poisonous; (2) psychoactive effects are elusive and difficult to achieve without knowledge of dosing and preparation techniques; and (3) the active compounds (ibotenic acid, muscimol) are important research chemicals.”
A few countries have outlawed the fungus, however. In Australia, muscimol falls under Schedule 9 (“Prohibited Substance,” the most restrictive schedule) in the Poisons Standard February 2022 of the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989. According to the Standard, the “manufacture, possession, sale, or use” of substances in this schedule “should be prohibited by law except when required for medical or scientific research or for analytical, teaching, or training purposes with approval of Commonwealth and/or State or Territory Health Authorities.” While Australian law exempts natural forms for some compounds, such exemptions are not specified for Amanitas. Thus, ingesting them would still constitute the “possession” and “use” of muscimol.
Similarly, the Netherlands outlawed A. muscaria when they outlawed Psilocybe carpophores. The ban was inspired by a series of Psilocybe-related incidents, one of which involved the death of a French teenager on a school-organized visit. The current law (original | English) includes “amanita muscaria muscaria” in List II, a group of substances Article 3 says are illegal to possess, etc. Consultation of the law court’s archive to compare the law before and after officials considered the French student’s death reveals the change in statute.
In the United States, A. muscaria is legal except in Louisiana, where “It shall be unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally to produce, manufacture, distribute, or possess with intent to produce, manufacture, or distribute a material, compound, mixture, or preparation intended for human consumption which contains a hallucinogenic.” Of note is the apparent omission of possession with intent to consume. Still, the point may be moot anyway, as Feeney highlights that “for Louisiana natives, the local psychoactive variety is Amanita persicina, not Amanita muscaria.”
There are a few other countries generally rumored to bar Amanita consumption, but their statutes are either unclear/incomplete or not widely available. The wisest course of action is to consult local laws. It’s always better to be safe than to be sorry.
Fly Agaric Resources
A great one-stop shop for all things Amanita is the aforementioned Fly Agaric compendium. For a shorter read that covers most of the bases, see Caine Barlow’s write-up on the fungus at the Third Wave. Also of interest is Hamilton Morris’ Pharmacopeia episode on Amanita and his Harper’s article on one of its constituents I didn’t cover here, gaboxadol. Inaturalist.org and Amanitaceae.org are excellent for taxonomic and identification info. Andy Letcher’s Shroom is among the best cultural histories, particularly good for un-muddying the waters of unsubstantiated Amanita mythologies so rampant in other works and online.
On the YouTube video front, Caine Barlow’s intro at Entheogenesis Australis and Rob Nelson’s StoneAgeMan coverage, Part I and Part II, are informative and entertaining. With beautiful color photos, clear and useful foraging advice is available in Wild Mushrooming by Alison Pouliot and Tom May. And, finally, consult amanitadreamer.net for information on where to buy, how to prepare, and how to use fly agaric. The site also offers a healthy dose of Amanita-centered practical wisdom.