Fly agaric, or Amanita muscaria, is perhaps one of the most recognised mushrooms in the UK. It is often used as perching posts for pixies and gnomes in storybooks, and can regularly be seen bringing a spot of colour to the forest landscape. With its blood red cap and white spots, it’s almost unmistakable. Fly agaric can be found from late summer throughout winter, dotted around birch, spruce and pine trees.
As is often the case in the natural world, pretty means dangerous. With a name derived from its ability to kill flies, fly agaric has been widely used as an insecticide. It is a poisonous mushroom known for its hallucinogenic properties but, despite this, it has been a part of religious tradition for thousands of years. In Hindu practice, fly agaric was supposedly used to produce a psychedelic drink called soma, taken as part of religious ceremonies to increase one’s awareness and evoke sensations of bliss, poetic inspiration and even immortality. However, there has been disagreement among modern scholars over the exact ingredients in this psychoactive beverage. Soma has been described as containing a plant with leaves and flowers, contrast to fly agaric.
Elsewhere in ancient history, fly agaric was consumed in potion-form by Vikings in the 8th century, allowing them to fight in battles with increased frenzy. And of course, Alice used the mushroom to change her size in Wonderland, after being instructed to do so by a smoking caterpillar with a ‘languid, sleepy voice’.
Though perhaps this wouldn’t be the recommended theme in modern children’s literature, it shows that the mysterious fly agaric has woven a complex and intriguing story through the ages. Now, as autumn descends, the fungi season is in full swing. Fly agaric sits radiantly among more drab varieties of mushroom, its vibrant colour a dangerous lure. It is a specimen that has fascinated us for centuries, and will continue to intrigue long into the future.