For the latest in our species of the week series, celebrating the 70 species to spot at Minsmere during our 70th anniversary year, I asked our Learning Officer, Chris Ford to write about one of the two fungi species in the list. Here is his guest blog.
The fly agaric is the archetypal toadstool. You can almost imagine elves sitting on its scarlet spotted cap. Interestingly the links between this poisonous species and mystical legends is more than just in our imagination. The fly agaric holds an important place in our cultural history.
Fly agaric is poisonous as most people would expect but it isn’t poisonous to everything. Despite being a relative of the deadly poisonous destroying angel and the death cap, the fly agaric can be consumed by reindeer with seemingly no ill effects. The toxins in the toadstool are broken down by the reindeer but other chemical compounds are not. Interestingly, these compounds are known to produce vivid hallucinations. And this is where the cultural relevance begins…
It was discovered by some of the northern European tribes that if you fed your reindeer fly agaric mushrooms and collected their urine then this could be consumed to achieve an hallucinogenic trip without all the unpleasantness of consuming a poisonous mushroom (we’ll gloss over the unpleasantness of what they were actually consuming!). Being as this was a pathway to an ‘alternative’ realm it would only have been carried out during special ceremonies by or under the supervision of the tribe’s shaman.
The common hallucinations associated with fly agarics are apparently the ability to ‘see’ magical creatures such as elves and most commonly a euphoric feeling of flying. The chemicals also appear to cause capillary dilation, where your blood vessels expand, and frequent use could cause the permanent appearance of rosy cheeks or bulbous red ‘whisky-nose’… sound familiar? What is more the shaman who would be assisting in this ceremonial event would probably be visiting you during a period of festivities, perhaps celebrating the winter solstice, when deep snow would have blocked the normal entrance to your hut, thankfully there was always another way in, through the roof vent or chimney.
Reindeer, flying, rosy cheeks, red noses, coming down the chimney, red and white… it all sounds a little familiar don’t you think.
Of course, reindeer aren't the only creatures that eat fly agaric. Slugs and snails are quite partial too. This one is down by the pond.