Sunday, 14 August 2011

What's your poison?

'Who are you?' said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, 'I - I hardly know, Sir, just at present - at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.'
'What do you mean by that?' said the Caterpillar, sternly. 'Explain yourself!'

If we were to choose one mushroom to stand for all mushrooms would it not surely be this? The Fly Agaric. The archetype 'toadstool' with its blood red cap flecked with white and its snowy gills has gone beyond being a mere living organism. It is a totem, a potent emblem branded into our consciousness from infancy through countless tales of folklore and fairies. From the brothers Grimm to Angela Carter, wherever there are wolves and woodcutters and wicked stepmothers it's a fair bet the Fly Agaric will be painted somewhere into the backcloth.

This mushroom - arguably more than any other living thing except perhaps the wolf - has come to symbolise our deeply held fears and suspicions about the malevolence of the forest. Red, as Snow White should have known before accepting the proffered apple, signifies danger. The bloody cap of the Fly Agaric, which seems to glow with its own light even in the forest penumbra, positively shrieks 'poison' at us. The skull-and-crossbones warning symbols in nearly all modern fungi guidebooks attest to its toxicity. But it hasn't always been that way.

There's no doubting that the Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, is cousin to some very dangerous mushrooms indeed. The large genus includes some notorious serial killers; the unambiguously named Death Cap, Amanita phalloides, and the beautiful ghostly white, and altogether more poetically named Destroying Angel, Amanita virosa. Between them these species account for the great majority of mushroom fatalities in Europe. The aforementioned guidebooks like to dwell on the gruesome symptoms, the delayed onset of which means their cocktail of toxins has already set about turning vital organs to soup before we know we need help.

By comparison, the Fly Agaric rarely kills us, although it may make us very ill especially if eaten raw. The principal active ingredient is muscimol, a simple little molecule but then so is ethanol (ethyl alcohol). Where the latter makes us behave like idiots, muscimol enables us to fly, to shape shift and, perhaps most intriguing of all, to see God. Not a drug for me, I should stress, but for those with more courage and less prejudicial cultural baggage than me, who are prepared to put up with the sweats and palpitations, it is an enticing way to meet our maker. Its use in shamanic rites in Siberia and Lapland has long been documented. It is hard to believe its psychoactive properties haven't been ritually exploited more widely.

When Alice encounters the hookah-smoking caterpillar who befuddles her with existential questioning, it is perched on a mushroom. John Tenniel's illustration isn't obviously a Fly Agaric but Lewis Carroll's text makes it plain he has an hallucinogenic fungus in mind. As a parting shot the disdainful caterpillar (the perfect shape shifter of course) advises Alice that eating one side of the mushroom will make her grow larger, the other side smaller. Dimensional mind-bending is apparently a commonly recorded experience of those who have indulged.

Fly Agarics are widespread in temperate mixed woodland across the northerm hemisphere. In the right conditions they can be locally common, as I encountered walking in Hamsterley Forest, County Durham, last week. There had been days of rain and mushrooms of all shapes and sizes had truly inherited the earth. The fruiting bodies of the Fly Agaric begin life above ground as tight buds enclosed in a white veil. When the veil ruptures fragments remain on the cap giving its typical warty appearance, but they may wash off in heavy rain. As the cap opens the gills separate from the stem leaving a white ring, or annulus, but again this is not always present.  Old specimens become flat and paler in colour, often full of holes where they have been eaten by insects, molluscs and even small rodents.

The toxic effects of this beautiful mushroom are potent and unpredictable and it is surely right that we teach our children to admire them without touching. It is a pity though that our caution fosters a more general, less focused, fear and ignorance about what is sprouting on the forest floor. Growing within a few feet of these Agarics I found some delicious ceps, Boletus edulis, left unharvested by the side of a well walked path. It is a peculiarly British prejudice I am learning to overcome with the help and knowledge of my continental friends who are avid mushroom hunters. Lewis Carroll's Alice, also a peculiarly British creation, seems to have had no such hang-ups, and lived to have many another adventure.


  1. How lucky you are to come across these beauties. There's something quite magical! Yes they are well known to be toxic. However the toxin can have its uses. I saw a documentary once, where an old woman in deepest Russia, had used a tincture made from fly agaric and water, in a very small dose, as a cure for cancer.

  2. Welcome back Anhrefn. What a wonderful blog. This time of year is truly magical, full of gifts from bountiful mother nature. And, mushrooms are my favourite quarry in the autumn. It is true that a number of people I meet in the forest are slightly alarmed by my basket full of fungi. One man actually took my basket, emptied it and stamped over my treasures. But, more often these days I find people interested in my knowledge and do not think me a witch.. I have not tried the other magic type but the caterpillar obviously has. I really like the way you have started your blog with Alice and look forward to more posts.

  3. Thank you. It's nice to be back in dysnomia... Although I have enjoyed my adventures of the past few weeks.

    I learn that the name 'Fly Agaric' dates back to the Middle Ages. Portions of the cap dropped into bowls of milk were used as a means of deterring flies in kitchens.

    I learn also that the toxins are water soluble and can be removed by parboiling, or the solution taken as an hallucinogenic infusion. I have found lots of material about use of Fly Agaric in alternative medicine, including as a tumour inhibitor and to counter the effects of ageing. Quite fascinating!