As part of National Fungus Day the British Mycological Society is asking people to take part in fungi spotting and let them know if you see a fly agaric. If you would like to hold an event as part of UK Fungus Day on the 12th October (part of Biology Week) please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Amanita muscaria, also known as the fly agaric, is one of my favourite fungi for its iconic shape and colour and also for its fascinating social history.
This fungus is often found near birch trees, as it forms a really close, beneficial partnership with the roots of this tree, called a mycorrhizal symbiosis. The body of many fungi are made up of thread-like filaments called hyphae. The network of fly agaric hyphae attached to the roots of the birch trees massively increases the ability of the tree to gain important nutrients for growth. In return, the tree provides the fly agaric with sugars from photosynthesis.
We are very familiar with the bright red caps, with the white spots of the fly agaric, and they often feature in children’s fairy stories with elves and gnomes. But there is also a yellow variety which is found in North America.
The fly agaric is poisonous; it contains a chemical called muscimol, which is thought to have insecticidal properties. Indeed, it’s thought that the name ‘fly agaric’ came from the practice of bringing in the fruit bodies into houses to control flies.
Muscimol is also a hallucigen, and there are some people who think that the use of this fungus in ritual led to the ideas around early Christianity. It’s known that shaman religious leaders in Siberia used to consume the fungus in order to achieve a high state of consciousness.
The fly agaric has also been linked to Santa Claus, with his red suit and white trim and his jolly nature! It’s also seen as a good luck charm in Germany as on New Years Eve, the tradition is to give sweets resembling the fungus made of chocolate and marzipan.