For some, Psilocybe subaeruginosa—also known as “P. subs”—is an exotic species, a curiosity from “Down Under.” Yet, this species is by no means rare. Australia has two main psilocybe species: the tropical/subtropical Psilocybe cubensis and the temperate eucalyptus-loving Psilocybe subaeruginosa. The former is an introduced species, and the latter grows natively in the Australian southeast.
In Australia, Psilocybe subaeruginosa is a very common—and in some cases, potentially weedy—species found in forests, parks, playgrounds, and scattered around universities. The species occurs as far south as Maatsuyker Island, a rugged island off the south coast of Tasmania, and as far north as Southeast Queensland—a considerable distribution and dynamic range of habitats and substrates. It’s even known to occur in the central business district (CBD) of Melbourne.
It is also very strong, amongst the most potent of the Psilocybes, and possibly the most naturally potent at 1.93% psilocybin by dry weight, compared to the 1.78% of Psilocybe azurescens. But, it’s essential to keep in mind that harvesting Psilocybe subaeruginosa is a potential felony enforced by local law enforcement agencies. The cultivation of Psilocybe subaeruginosa is illegal in many countries and considered “manufacture.”
Psilocybe subaeruginosa Origins
Psilocybe subaeruginosa was discovered in Australia long before it became popular. The earliest recorded collection of the species was in June 1915 in New South Wales. Mycologists made further collections in Victoria and South Australia. In 1927, Australian naturalist, microbiologist, mycologist, and ornithologist John Burton Cleland named and described the species. Cleland was one of the pioneers of Australian mycology. In 1934–35, he published “Toadstools and Mushrooms and Other Larger Fungi of South Australia,” a two-volume monograph known to be one of the most comprehensive reviews of Australian fungi ever written.
Yet, it took another 35 years for P. subs to enter the public consciousness—and we have surfers to thank for inspiring a curiosity around psychoactive fungi. During the 1960s, the east coast of Australia became a mecca for surfers. The barrel waves of the Gold Coast brought in an influx of American tourists—and they didn’t come empty-handed. They brought a hefty dose of West Coast psychedelic culture, along with some rather interesting compounds and a knowledge of which mushrooms might be worth picking.
In 1969, articles from the Sydney Sunday Telegraph and the Canberra Times reported on the newly popular pastime of foraging for P. cubensis in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales. After reading these newspaper reports, Picker and Rickards decided to investigate P. subaeruginosa. In 1970 they published a paper reporting that the species contained 0.45 percent psilocybin by dry weight. The knowledge about this species spread quickly, with occasional newspaper reports on the dangers of collecting hallucinogenic mushrooms. Australians rediscovered their native magic mushrooms.
Psilocybe subaeruginosa Habitat
P. subaeruginosa is known to thrive in various habitats and substrates, but the fungi are most often found growing on Eucalyptus debris. It is a temperate wood-loving mushroom thought to be endemic to Australia. It grows in the southern parts of the continent, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, and New South Wales. It’s also found in a small pocket of southeast Queensland. It is an introduced species to southwest Western Australia, first found growing near the small town of Balingup—the subject of the film “Fungimentary: the Magic Mushrooms of Balingup.” The mushroom has taken well to its newer home; P. subs’ range in Western Australia appears to be spreading. P. subaeruginosa also occurs in New Zealand.
Like its American relatives, P. subaeruginosa favors an oceanic climate. In southeast Australia, “P. subs” start fruiting from late March to mid-April following a consistent drop of temperatures below 8℃ (46℉) and heavy dews. This species also tolerates a Mediterranean climate, but rainfall is required to sufficiently moisten substrates before they begin fruiting. The season starts between late April to early May and extends through to July or September. In some extreme circumstances, they may fruit at other times of the year; summer snowfalls or cold snaps in mountainous areas are enough to trigger fruiting.
Psilocybe subaeruginosa is often found on the forest margins, disturbed areas, or the edge of trails growing singly or in groups. Their primary habitat is wet or dry sclerophyll forest, where they grow among, but are not limited to, eucalyptus debris and clumps of grass. In addition, they may grow on the fallen debris of bracken fern (Pteridium spp.), man fern (Dicksonia spp.), and tea tree (Leptospermum spp.). They can also occur within pine plantations (Pinus radiata), growing on well-composted pine mulch, buried woody fragments, and the occasional pinecone.
Psilocybe subaeruginosa Identification
Psilocybe subaeruginosa is incredibly variable in its appearance, often adding to the confusion around this species. The caps can appear in a variety of shapes and shades of brown and yellow, sometimes cream. The stem can vary in thickness and length, sometimes growing straight and other times twisting. For these reasons, P. subaeruginosa can be confused with various toxic genera that look similar and grow in the same habitat.
The cap (pileus) measures between one to six centimeters in diameter but can grow larger in the right conditions. The mushrooms start with conical caps that become convex, and with age, upturned. Sometimes the cap undulates, strongly resembling P. cyanescens. They often have an umbo, which is a pointed tip at the center of the cap. The umbo can sometimes be quite pronounced. Psilocybe subaeruginosa has a hygrophanous cap, which will change color as the cap loses moisture. The caps vary markedly in color, from dark to light caramel brown, with a sticky texture. As the cap dries, they become light brown or golden brown, sometimes pale yellow or cream.
The edge of the cap is often striate (slightly transparent so you can see where the gill joins the cap) and inturned when young. The cap is initially protected by a cobweb-like white partial veil when young, which occasionally leaves faint traces of a white ring around the edge of the cap. A useful distinguishing feature is that the cap has a separable pellicle—a gelatinous layer that covers the outer surface of the cap and can be peeled off.
The stem (stipe) of Psilocybe subaeruginosa can be fibrous, and it’s often hollow. It ranges from five to ten centimeters long and approximately five millimeters wide. Although the latter is not a precise measurement—they can get quite chunky. The color of the stem can also change over time. It’s often stark white when young, becoming grey-brown with age. When waterlogged, the stem turns brown-grey. The base of the stem is swollen, often with thick white rhizomorphic mycelium extending into the substrate.
The gills (Lamellae) of P. subaeruginosa are adnate (attached to the stalk slightly above the bottom of the gill) to broadly adnexed (reaching the stem, but not attached to it). They’re also moderately close together. When the cap opens, they are white, becoming a pallid smoky brown and, with age, brown-grey. Psilocybe subaeruginosa has a purple-black spore print. Spore prints can be brown in very rare cases due to a mutation that inhibits the purple pigments in the spores.
As with many other psilocybin-containing mushrooms, all parts of P. subaeruginosa will bruise blue where damaged. The bruising is not immediate, but some parts of the mushroom bruise quicker than others—the gills bruise quickly, while the stem can take up to a couple of hours. The bruising is due to the oxidation of psilocin. Psilocybin, the pro-drug of psilocin, cannot be oxidized directly but, through enzymatic action, is converted to psilocin at injury sites and is then oxidized. For more information about identifying this species, Entheogenesis Australias created a downloadable PDF identification guide.
Psilocybe subaeruginosa Cultivation
Growing Psilocybe subaeruginosa is illegal in most countries, although some North American cities have decriminalized cultivation. Nonetheless, Psilocybe subaeruginosa grows willingly within mulched garden beds. Landscape gardeners may inadvertently spread wood chips containing P. subs spores through parks, gardens, university grounds, and inner-city plant displays. For this reason, they have the potential to become weedy as they readily myceliate wood chip piles. When growing among woody debris, a distinctive feature of this species is the thick, white, rhizomatic mycelium that “runs” through the substrate and can spread large distances.
How To Grow Psilocybe subaeruginosa Outdoors
Similar species P. cyanescens and P. azurescens are also known to do well in urban environments. As with P.azurescens, P. subaeruginosa will readily grow on various lignin-based substrates, including cardboard, burlap, alder chips (Alnus rubra), or a variety of other wood mulch. This is perhaps welcome news for those in decriminalized regions interested in growing Psilocybe subaeruginosa outdoors.
In his book Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets articulates that cultivators can start P. azurescens and P. cyanescens in small batches, then expand. In time, cultivators use the start to set up garden beds. Additionally, the same techniques used to grow mushrooms like Stropharia rugosoannulata or Lepista nuda can be adapted for various wood-inhabiting species, as Stamets describes in his book.
Psilocybe subaeruginosa Potency
“P. subs” can be intense, highly visual, and potentially hyperdimensional. Their potent strength has also made them a popular choice for microdosing since very little is needed to produce the intended effects. Although, it’s important to keep in mind that possession of psilocybin mushrooms is illegal in many countries. One dried gram, or as little as a few dried mushrooms, could be a potent dose, so psychonauts (or psilonauts) should be cautious with these powerful fungi. It’s also helpful to remain mindful of the growing substrate of this mushroom. Their potency can vary significantly depending on their growing medium. When foraged from wood chip beds, the consensus is that they may be particularly strong, even overwhelming.
The wood-loving group of Psilocybe that includes P. subaeruginosa contains not only high levels of psilocybin but also other indole alkaloids. Indole alkaloids are chemical compounds related to tryptophan, an essential amino acid that we naturally get from food. Tryptophan and its derivatives are precursors to many psychoactive chemicals, including lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin. Tryptophan is also the dietary precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Many psilocybin mushrooms contain additional indole alkaloids with understudied effects. Psilocybe azurescens, for example, can contain 0.35 percent of the alkaloid baeocystin by dry weight. P. cyanescens may contain many different indole alkaloids, including psilocybin, psilocin, baeocystin, aeruginascin, and monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Given how closely the two are related, it is expected that P. subaeruginosa would be no different in this regard. Although, chemical analysis is still needed.
The discussion around potency is becoming more nuanced. Psilocybe cubensis, the species grown in cupboards and under beds all over the planet, has been the focus of much underground research. New strains and improved methods of cultivation have led to the increased potency of cultivated strains. Of note are events such as the Oakland Hyphae Psilocybin Cup, which highlight the potency of cultivated Psilocybe cubensis.
Psilocybe subaeruginosa and Wood Lover Paralysis
Woodlover paralysis (WLP) is a syndrome caused by mushrooms from the genus Psilocybe that grow on wood. People experience a loss of muscle strength and motor control that can persist into the following day. The effect is known to be temporary, usually wearing off after 24 hours. For the unprepared, it can be an anxiety-inducing experience. This paralysis should not be confused with the overwhelming effects of a strong dose, as it can occur at relatively low levels of psychedelic intensity. WLP is a distinct physiological effect.
There are regular discussions on WLP in forums such as The Shroomery and Facebook groups dedicated to Psilocybe identification. The main species that cause WLP belong to Psilocybe Section Cyanescens, which includes P. subaeruginosa, P. azurescens, P. cyanescens, and P. weraroa. The syndrome may not be limited to this group and may result from other species. A Japanese report from 1973 describes a case involving P. subcaerulipes with the descriptions of the “poisonings” matching the syndrome.
In 2020, The Australian Psychedelic Society (APS) ran a survey on the syndrome, showing the results in a webcast by Entheogenesis Australis in July of 2021. The survey covered environmental and individual factors that may contribute to the syndrome and asked individuals about the experience. From those who reported having had WLP, the survey identified that the habitats and substrates involved were fairly equally represented, as were preparation methods.
There is currently no satisfactory explanation. A few theories abound, but two chemical compounds are touted as possible culprits: aeruginascin or a related trimethylammonium compound. Still, more research is needed. “If we understand this uncommon syndrome and the associated risks,” stated Dr. Simon Beck, who led the project, “we can take steps towards minimizing the potential for harm and provide appropriate care to those experiencing it. Such harm reduction measures become even more important in the context of ever-increasing interest in these mushrooms.”
P. Subs Look-alike Species
Foragers should take care while searching for P. subaeruginosa. First, collecting P. Subs may result in criminal penalties in some regions. Second, many species look very similar to the Psilocybe, and each deserves to be treated with caution. The most likely to cause concern are species from the genus Galerina, which can be deadly because they contain amatoxins. Amatoxin is the term for a collection of toxic compounds found in some poisonous mushrooms.
After ingesting amatoxins, some people may feel ill within a couple of hours, followed by a false and temporary feeling of recovery. Others may experience no symptoms at all. During this time, the amatoxins begin to damage the liver and kidneys. Yet, without treatment, from approximately two days after the poisoning, individuals start to feel weak, then very ill, and soon after that, experience organ failure.
Galerina spp. resemble young specimens of P. subaeruginosa. Galerina spp. feature caramel-brown cap like subaeruginosa, but the former also features a brown stem with an annulus. The rust-brown spore print helps identify species from this genera. They are poisonous and potentially deadly as they contain amatoxins, the same toxins found in Death Cap, also known as Amanita phalloides.
Cortinarius spp. are also reported as look-alikes. Some species of Cortinarius have a blue coloring that fades over time, resembling blue bruising. Some have brown caps that resemble Psilocybe spp. Cortinarius spp. also features rust-brown spores and can be very poisonous, resulting in liver and kidney damage. An example species is Cortinarius rotundisporus.
Less poisonous but also of note is Hypholoma fasciculare which can also look similar to Psilocybe spp. A primary difference is that Hypholoma fasciculare grows in dense clusters, which is uncharacteristic of Psilocybe. They tend to have brown caps with white stems and a purple-black spore print. Some of these mushrooms can be poisonous. Leratiomyces ceres, also known as Woodchip cherry, has an orange-red cap. These mushrooms retain their veil remnants at the margin and on the surface. They have greyish gills, and their stem is orange-red or pale yellow. They have a purple-black spore print and are poisonous.
Proper identification is vital before consuming any wild mushrooms. The question “does it bruise blue?” is a helpful one when identifying Psilocybe. All Psilocybe bruise blue, although bruising can take some time with certain specimens. Additionally, some species barely bruise, but species like P. subaeruginosa bruise readily.
Another step toward correctly identifying mushrooms is to check the spores. The question “what color are the spores?” can be helpful here. Psilocybe spores should be purple-black. Making a spore print can help identify your species and avoid a fatal mistake. However, blue bruising and a spore print alone are not enough to correctly identify Psilocybe mushrooms. It’s also essential to look for common Psilocybe features, like the separable pellicle and tough fibrous stems. Posting photos to Shroomery or local Facebook Psilocybe groups for identification is helpful, especially for amateur foragers.
Finally, “if in doubt, throw it out.” As well as getting to know the species you are looking for, get to know the potential look-alikes. If you think you have been poisoned, phone your local emergency hotline. You can access information about poisoning by calling your local poisons hotline.
A Final Remark on the Psilocybe subaeruginosa Species Name
As with many fungi, Psilocybe subaeruginosa is either a taxonomist’s worst nightmare or a notable career highlight. The primary question is this: Is this species singular or plural? Mycologists have debated the defining characteristics of this mushroom for decades. What really makes P. subaeruginosa a subaeruginosa? Recent DNA evidence is throwing some old guesses out with the bathwater.
Before the advent of DNA sequencing and barcoding in the late 1970s, the taxonomy of fungi was based on mushroom features. These features included macroscopic features, including the cap, gills, and stem. Microscopic features come next. Mycologists examine spore size and color and a few other notable characteristics, like the shape and size of basidia, cheilocystidia, and pleurocystidia. The basidia are the structures on which the spores form. The purpose of the latter two features, however, is unclear. They are suspected to play a role in filling the space between basidium. Cheilocystidia occur on the edge of a gill. Pleurocystidia are found on the face.
In 1983, Gaston Guzman published his monograph “The Genus Psilocybe,” a comprehensive review of the whole genus using macroscopic and microscopic features. Guzman created “Sections” to help classify the relationship between the many groups of species. Psilocybe subaeruginosa was placed in Psilocybe Section Subaeruginosae due to its having chocolate brown cheilocystidia and pleurocystidia. P. australiana and P. eucalypta were thought to be closely related to P. cyanescens. As such, they were placed in Section Cyanescens based on their having hyaline—clear and transparent—cheilocystidia and pleurocystidia. As of 1995, Psilocybe Section Cyanescens is considered synonymous with Psilocybe Section Semilanceatae.
As part of a more extensive study on fungi in Strophariaceae, Chang and Mills used various techniques to compare the four species; P. subaeruginosa, P. australiana, P. eucalypta, and P. tasmaniana. Specifically, they looked at morphology, isozyme analysis, and mating compatibility. They published their research in 1992. Ultimately, they decided they were the same species. So, the four species were made synonymous, taking the name P. subaeruginosa. P. subs had been the first to be described, so took taxonomic precedence. In 1995, Johnston and Buchanan removed P. tasmaniana from this grouping but otherwise maintained this synonymy.
Although officially recognized, the synonymous grouping never entirely stuck and has been debated by many, including Paul Stamets. In his 1996 book Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World, he describes the three species separately. Stamets cites that Chang and Mills admit to not finding “chocolate brown” pigmented pleurocystidia in any of the collections they studied. There are many discussions about this topic in forums such as The Shroomery, Mycotopia, and The Corroboree.
Recent DNA analysis of these mushrooms reveals some genetic surprises, perhaps resulting in more questions than were answered. A form of DNA sequencing called ITS barcoding revealed that Psilocybe subaeruginosa is closely related to P. cyanescens, P. allenii, P. azurescens, and the New Zealand species P. weraroa. In appearance, they closely resemble P. cyanescens and P. azurescens.
Given the extensive questions around P. subs, both from academics and the underground community, there are now calls to review the species. Many mycologists consider Psilocybe subaeruginosa a species complex—an umbrella name for a number of different species grouped together. This is given more weight by a 2013 paper by Virginia Ramírez-Cruz, Gastón Guzmán, and others, which found that most Psilocybe Sections based on morphological features were not supported by the genetic analysis.
Ramírez-Cruz and Guzmán also propose that P. cyanescens and P. subaeruginosa represent the same species based on their high genetic similarity. In a 2017 commentary on P. cyanescens, Alexander Giessler suggested that the ancestor of P. cyanescens may be found in a P. subaeruginosa population in Australia. Giessler also points out that populations of P. cyanescens in the USA and the UK are characterized by low genetic diversity, as further evidence that maybe this species is a long way from home.
New Research into Psilocybe subaeruginosa in Australia
Research on magic mushrooms in Australia has been sadly neglected due to the stigma around psilocybin and psychedelics. Consequently, our understanding of the ecology and diversity of Australian Psilocybe is little known, with the majority of the taxonomic expertise found in the underground community. The last published scientific research on Psilocybe in Australia was the 1992 Chang and Mills study on P. subaeruginosa—a study that has been put into doubt by many, as discussed above.
Our understanding of P. subaeruginosa is expected to change with the recent announcement from the University of Queensland. Mycologist and evolutionary biologist Dr. Alistair McTaggart has permission to legally collect native Australian “magic mushrooms.” Dr. McTaggart has set out to investigate the diversity of native “magic mushrooms” in Australia, particularly P. subaeruginosa. He hopes to determine the population structure of P. subaeruginosa, which is information needed to help clarify the taxonomy of the species, including the synonymized species P. australiana, and P. eucalypta.
There is also the question of how P. subaeruginosa is related to P. azurescens, P. cyanescens, and other species in Section Cyanescens. “Our new project will determine whether a species which is believed to be native, Psilocybe subaeruginosa, has spread globally,” said Dr. McTaggart. There is hope that McTaggart’s work will answer questions that arose from previous technological limitations. For example, using the ITS region as a fungal barcode—a specific DNA sequence used to identify bacteria and fungi—is known to be problematic with closely related species of Psilocybe. So, through full genome sequencing and analysis of the data, a clearer understanding of the various populations and how they evolved is expected to emerge.