Fly agaric – Edibility, Identification, Detoxification, Medicinal Use

Amanita muscaria

Fly Agaric - A Muscaria

Fly Agaric – Amanita Muscaria. ©GallowayWildFoods.com

  • Edibility   3/5 – Toxic and hallucinogenic if consumed raw, but if correctly prepared, perfectly edible as food, with no ill effects. When properly prepared, fly agaric is a decent edible mushroom – not in the top tier of delicious wild mushrooms, but perfectly a pleasant abundant and easily identified wild food. Fly agaric tincture is also used by some herbalists in the topical treatment of sciatica.
  • Identification 4/5 – Can be confused with red russula species (esp. the sickener, russula emetica) if scales are washed off. Free white gills, a substantial ring on the stipe and a bulbous volva. When very young and still covered by its universal veil, fly agaric can be hard to distinguish from other amanitas (including deadly poisonous amanitas) and resembles puffballs, and young agaricus species such as field mushrooms and horse mushrooms to untrained eyes. See my photos below for illustration.
  • Distribution    5/5 – Very common in its habitats across the UK, N Europe and much of N America
  • Season: July-November
  • Habitat: Mostly birch and (sitka) spruce
  • Ecological Role: Fly agaric is a mycorrhizal fungi, living in close symbiosis with its partner trees. Its mycelium mines water and minerals, which are traded with tree partners for simple sugars.
  • Harvesting Notes: Fly agaric is generally abundant, and, if it could express a preference, would probably thank you for carrying a few of its spore-bearing caps, gills-down, in a basket, through the forest. Thanks to its iconic beauty, it is one of few mushrooms that is admired by the non fungi-literate, as they might admire a pretty flower, so its nice to leave plenty in public spots for people to enjoy. Hopefully they will capture their imagination and be a stepping stone into a wider appreciation of fungi!
  • Legality:  In the UK, and much of the world, fly agaric is considered an illegal Class A drug, the possession of which – dried or fresh, and regardless of your intentions – could get you in trouble with the law.
  • Relationship with other Fungi:  Fly agarics are a good “signalling species” – tending to grow in the same locations as penny buns (aka cep, porcini, Boletus edulis). I sometimes abbreviate them as “FL.AGS” for this reason. Their relationship with penny buns seems to be complex and requires further research. What’s clear from my experience is a complex interdependency between Fly agaric, the miller (Clitopilus prunulus) and peppery boletes (Chalciporus piperatus) and their tree partners. It has been known for some years that peppery boletes are parasitic on fly agaric mycelia, but I suspect there is more at play here: I almost alway find peppery boletes and the miller near penny buns, suggesting that they have a myco-myco relationship (inter-fungal trading? …or parasitism? …and if so, who is parasitising who!?). Although certainly a good sign, fly agaric are less reliably present near penny buns, perhaps suggesting that they have a more omnivorous appetite…? Who knows what complex battles, alliances and trades are going on beneath our feet!? I enjoy musing on these relationships when I’m out foraging.

Fly agarics can be a bright red clue to the presence of penny buns (ceps)

The edibility of fly agaric is a somewhat controversial but really very fascinating subject, touching on cultural sensibilities, chemistry, legalities and our wider understanding of what constitutes an “edible” mushroom.

There is a fair bit of reading to do to give yourself a balanced view and you should give consideration to both the following articles before you decide if eating fly agaric is for you.

On the one hand:

  • Contrary to nearly all guide books, this mushroom is edible and tasty with no ill effects – BUT ONLY IF IT IS PROPERLY PREPARED. There is an ongoing cultural prejudice against eating it, as documented in this article which also includes directions for safe preparation.

While on the other hand:

  • A.muscaria is a potentially VERY POISONOUS (occasionally deadly), only made safe to eat by meticulous preparation and generally not recommended as an edible mushroom. Please read this article which refutes many of the claims made in the article above.

You may then also wish to read my further thoughts in response to the second article in the comments section below, in which I discuss the issues with the author of the second paper.

Fly Agaric, fairytale fungi

Fly Agaric, fairytale fungi. ©GallowayWildFoods.com

 

My personal take is that eating any wild food (or indeed, any food) should be a matter of taking personal responsibility for what you choose to eat. This means doing enough research to feel comfortable in identification and consumption (ie. not just one paper or guidebook – and certainly not just one website!). There is no pleasure in eating anything new without feeling 100% comfortable about what it is, what it contains (naturally or artificially), and how they it interacts with personal tastes and tolerances.

amanitas,deceivers,chants,meu,self heal

A delicious mixed dish of properly prepared fly agaric, blusher, deceivers and chanterelles with late summer herbs. ©GallowayWildFoods.com

Edibility is not black and white, but culturally and personally defined. “Poisonous” and “Delicious” are not polar opposites, but lie on what I call “The Spectrum of Edibility” – read more about this here: Blog – “The Day I Ate A Deadly Plant: The Spectrum of Edibility“.

So in summary, I am entirely happy to pick, carefully prepare and eat fly agaric as a food – but that doesn’t mean you should feel the same!

Anyway, back to the mushroom itself…Eaten raw (or if you drink the post-cooking broth), your body will have to deal with a cocktail of active compounds. Upon ingestion, muscimol and ibotenic acid can cause nausea and  stupification (which can be seriously unpleasant, though seldom life-threatening). Usually after that (maybe an hour or so) come hallucinations, vivid visual disturbances and occasionally feelings of hugely exaggerated movements whereby the intoxicated person may take a huge leap to step over a small twig (and feel like they have jumped over a hill). It seems that muscimol is the principal psychoactive constituent of Amanita muscaria, causing sedation and delirium, while  ibotenic acid acts as a prodrug to the muscimol – ie. helping to increase its bio-availability. As with all drugs, dosage and personal tolerance is all important to the physiological response, and mindset and setting can strongly influence the psychedelic outcomes. Apart from legal considerations, this is not a drug to take lightly.

fly agaric, universal veil

Fly agaric at the button stage. The white covering on top breaks up as the cap grows, becoming the distinctive white spots of mature specimens. These can easily be washed off in wet weather. Extra care should be taken when identifying any immature fungi, particularly if it looks like this. It could look very different a day later!

fly agaric button, just bursting its universal veil

fly agaric

The potency of the active ingredients in fly agaric can depend on when you pick it. First flush FlAgs (which tend to appear between July and August in SW Scotland where I am based) tend to be much more potent than later ones. Also significant is the stage of growth at which it is picked – generally, the younger and more intense the red, the more potent.  And there is also the matter of personal tolerances.

Growth of fly agaric over time. Time between stages depends on a variety of factors, but approximately 1 week between universal veil stage and fully open stage is typical. Image ©GallowayWildFoods.com – taken from my Webinar “Wild Mushroom Identification”. Click the image to view the webinar.

Detoxification of Fly Agaric

When I use fly agaric as food I tend to just roughly chop (quite thin), boil in plenty of salted water for up to 10 minutes, strain, rinse and then cook with them. I’ve never had any issue with this rather unscientific approach. But if you are going to try them for the first time, you’ll probably want the reassurance of a more prescriptive method. So I’ve adapted the steps below from the Rubel & Arora paper discussed above.

Perhaps you are wondering whether the mushrooms will still be worth eating after a long boiling like this. They are. Unlike vegetables, which tend to go mushy when boiled, mushrooms cell structure is such that they keep their form and much of their texture when cooked for longer periods. This is due to their cell walls being composed of chitin, the same substance (though in slightly different form) as shellfish carapaces are made of. Chitin is also the reason why a high proportion of fungi can be challenging for humans to digest, as we lack the correct gut enzymes to break it down fully.

1. Slice clean specimens (cap and stem) into pieces up to 5mm thick. Note: If you cut them thicker, increase the boil time.

2. Weigh the chopped mushrooms. For every 110g of mushroom, measure 1 litre of water and 1 teaspoon of salt into a pan. Bring to a rolling boil. Note: Salt helps to extract the water soluble components. You can add flavourings like bay leaves, peppercorns etc here too if you wish.

3. Add the chopped mushrooms to the boiling salted water and start a timer once the water returns to the boil. Time 10 minutes (or 15 minutes if you are particularly nervous!)

4. Strain the mushrooms. Note: The strained liquid now contains the active ingredients: they are not destroyed by heat. This liquid is – technically – an illegal Class A drug in many countries! It will go off if stored.

Fly agaric “stock” – looks quite like beer!

5. Rinse the boiled mushrooms in plenty of fresh water.

Fly agaric after boiling & straining

6. You can now use the fly agaric as you would any other mushroom.

Foraging teacher Fergus Drennan has reported that after dehydrating correctly prepared fly agaric, some of which he ate with no issues at all, he experienced mild intoxication when he reconstituted and used the same dehydrated mushrooms in a risotto. It seems that any vestiges of muscimol are re-concentrated by dehydration, so care should be exercised if you dehydrate detoxified fly agaric. If you want to be very, very belt and braces with the initial detoxification process, Fergus also suggests baking in the oven for 1hr at 220º – which will remove all possibility of even traces of muscimol/ibutenic acid.

When we find fly agaric on my guided walks we stop and marvel at their extraordinary beauty before exchanging all the well known fly agaric stories of pee drinking, flying reindeer, berserkers etc. No mushroom captures the imagination quite like the fly agaric! Its not surprising that it is the only mushroom to have its own emoji!

🍄🍄🍄🍄🍄🍄🍄🍄🍄

Please share your tales, myths and experiences in the comments box below, but please note that fly agaric is an illegal Class A drug in the UK, so while I am deeply interested in its shamanic and recreational use, I will not discuss it here.

Further reading:

36 Comments

  • callum campbell says:

    Hi Mark,

    A very interesting article on fly agaric, these fungi were abundant in Arrans birch woods but i always avoided them when out on fungal forays. I have a field guide advising that L.sulphureus is not edible, and we all know thats nonsense too.

  • debbie viess says:

    Hi,
    I have recently published a lengthy rebuttal to the ill-conceived Rubel/Arora piece on the edibility of Amanita muscaria. Suffice it to say that it is actually good common sense rather than some sort of nebulous “field guide bias”
    that has caused folks around the world to eschew muscaria as an edible species, except in rare circumstances. Nowhere is muscaria eating common or generally accepted by the fungiphilic majority, either now or in the past.

    To read the whole truth about the consumption of this controversial, highly toxic and yet fascinating species of fungus, go here:

    http://mushroomthejournal.com/bestof/muscaria_revisited.pdf

    Yours in mycological truth and justice,

    Debbie Vies
    Bay Area Mycological Society
    http://www.bayareamushrooms.org

    • mark says:

      Hi Debbie,

      Thanks for this excellent article. I read it with great interest and it certainly diminished my appreciation of the Arora/Rubels paper. Nevertheless, I think I presented the information here in a sensible way which allows readers to make their own minds up on this matter – though I will add some prominence to your article to present a balanced view and outline the shortcomings of the “pro-muscaria eating” paper.

      This is in line with the general principle I teach with regard to eating any wild food (plant, shellfish, marine algae or fungi) – that of taking personal responsibility for what we choose to eat. This includes making well informed judgements with regard to identification, edibility (ie. check multiple sources), personal tolerances, the variable nature of the composition of wild ingredients, bio-accumulation of pollution and so on…

      I think the more balanced summaries of the edibility of A.muscaria that you detail towards the end of the report are the way forward for listing this species.

      I have a few observations that may be of interest to your ongoing research:

      – I eat a.muscaria a few times per year as food. I personally do not follow the explicit detoxification “recipe” given in the paper. I just use a lot of salted water, a generous (though again, unmeasured) boil time and plenty of rinsing. I do not advocate this approach to people trying it for the first time, but I feel entirely comfortable with this. Were I intending to feed it to others, I would be more meticulous. I like the flavour/texture when seared afterwards, though its certainly not on the top gastronomic tier!

      – I do not feed it to people on my fungi walks. I think this is something to do for ones self without bravado or peer pressure and with due contemplation – not least for the peace of mind and sense of personal responsibility it fosters. I do, however, regularly graze yew berries with my groups, reminding them to spit out the highly toxic (if unlikely to be broken down by digestion) pips. I call it wild food fugu and people enjoy the experience. Its interesting to note that people will easily take to eating yew berry flesh, but very few would consider detoxifying a.muscaria or a.rubescens. Mycophobia is deep set.

      -A.muscaria is one of our most common mushrooms and pretty much the easiest to identify. This, in an odd way, makes it an excellent “beginners” mushroom. In many ways I think it would be far better for people to mindfully pick and reverentially prepare a.muscaria than rare, over-harvested or “dangerous lookalike” species.

      – There is certainly a prejudice against giving accurate information on a.muscaria in many guidebooks compared to other fungi that require detoxification. I’m aware that raw a.rubescens doesn’t present the same dangers as a.muscaria, but it should be prepared similarly. ALL my guidebooks list it as edible. See also morchella spp, armillaria spp,and many other fungi – as well as potatoes!

      – People eat too little of, too much of, badly prepared, under-ripe, over-ripe, undercooked, overcooked or just plain daft things all the time. I think we could choose just about any foodstuff (established or “cutting edge”) and find examples of it making people ill or killing them.

      – My friend Miles Irving, a respected writer on edible wild plants and supplier of wild foods to many of the UK’s best chefs, served a.muscaria at a banquet for (if memory serves) 300 people last year. All were “knowing participants” and I heard no reports of any ill-effects. I don’t know the details – I don’t imagine he served them much – but you might wish to add his observations to your research (http://www.forager.org.uk/)

      – I find about 1 in 200 people have an adverse reaction to eating well-cooked c.cibarius!

      Thanks again for your illuminating research and please do forward me anything similar in the future.

      Mycologically yours,

      Mark.

      • Mushroom man says:

        I have eaten Amanita Muscaria for many years my doctors do 3 blood tests for liver function and any other issues that may be present and like I suspected no ill effects . In the early 80s I picked a whole brown paper bag full of giromitra ( false morels )what we called German browns , I ate the whole bag fried with onions upta camp . No mushroom in my opinion should be cooked while covered, I was hospitalized for one night and day , false morels cooked with a cover may make you very ill but I’m still kicking. I would not eat a destroying angel ever . Sam ristrich was involved in studying me for his research at the university. Some folks may be different but I’ve eaten aminita muscaria raw , cooked , and as a tea for years but I don’t drink urin lol .

        • Fergus Neil Michael O'Doherty says:

          thats a trip
          i was bent double….punching a wall….for 2 hours from pain…..on a regular liberty looking shroom. but…..not hospitalized. but i was sick sick sick …very sick….twice..on shrooms

          • Fergus Neil Michael O'Doherty says:

            and..I am drying out about 5 handfulls of caps right now in Denver….in the park !

  • Trevor Speer says:

    I love hearing stories about fly agaric; reindeer urine drinking, santa clause being a remnant from pagan shamanism, viking berserkers, etc, and as a Norwegian I can add a personal relic to these stories. Lying amongst potluck dinner casserole dishes, Lutheran Bibles, and other wholesome midwestern family heirlooms is a fly agaric candle holder! This is well over 100 years old, who knows if the makers of the object new the significance of the mushroom, or were just using a carried over symbol that lost its true meaning but I do know one thing, if you go back far enough my ancestors were using this mushroom and I have the relic to prove it! Great article, even though this type of mushroom is WAY advanced for a beginner like me, I love learning more about it. BTW I can send a picture if you want.

    • mark says:

      Hi Trevor,

      That’s really interesting – i’d love to see a picture of the candle holder.

      This is such an iconic mushroom that it has pervaded human consciousness in many way – often regardless of it psychoactive nature.

      The main thing for me is that it is really, really beautiful – and always a delight to stumble across.

      Happy foraging,

      Mark.

  • debbie viess says:

    Hi Mark,
    I appreciate your highlighting some of the ideas presented in my paper for your blog readers. I agree with you that, as individuals, we can choose what risks we want to take, and what we choose to put into our own mouths, for whatever reason.

    I took exception to Rubel and Arora downplaying the very real dangers of eating muscaria, and their claims that it was commonly eaten or was a widely accepted edible anywhere or at any time. This is simply not true.

    Yes, one can boil it enough to remove at least most of the toxins; the longer the prep, though, the more likely to remove them all. Try that well-boiled piece, though, and it is not so delicious anymore. Carmelizing anything in butter improves its flavor. Why drop a toxic mushroom into the mix?

    A number of folks who are experienced mycophagists have had unpleasant poisonings when using a boiling prep, so it is certainly not foolproof, even when the cooks are far from fools.

    Beginning foragers are well served by initial warnings about any toxic species; let the experimentation come later, with experience. Morels are a poor comparison to muscaria; morels are not toxic once cooked; no special cooking whatsoever is necessary. With “edible” muscaria, there are lots of caveats: thin slices, just enough water, double boilings and don’t forget to throw out that boiling water when you are done!

    Not quite the same as just throw it in a pan and cook and done.

    Some folks enjoy that “fugu” experience, and more power to ’em. but that’s a long way from touting muscaria as a safe and unremarkable edible species in any future field guides.

    As to your UK chef friend serving muscaria to the masses: all toxins are dose dependent. As I stated in my paper, i have eaten muscaria three times: once parboiled and sautéed (yucky), once just grilled (yummy!) and once rehydrated on pizza. Even the unboiled muscaria had zero effect on me, positive or negative, but that doesn’t mean that I would serve it to others, or consider it to be safe. One piece, no matter how prepared, is a meaningless dose, for most. These muscaria tastings are not controlled scientific studies, they are foodie thrill seeking. One slice of muscaria is harmless to most, boiled or unboiled; escaping unscathed is hardly news.

    The danger is when folks take away the idea that muscaria is a harmless mushroom, easy to ID and prepare. If that were so, it wouldn’t be universally shunned by fungiphilic cultures everywhere. Yes, there are small pockets of those who have learned how to prepare it, but they are the exceptions not the rule, and in most cases there are extenuating circumstances (i.e. starvation).

    The current muscaria fad is something else again. When enough people get poisoned, then that pendulum will swing back the other way.

    You are absolutely right about the almost universal fascination for this beautiful mushroom, and the very discussion of eating this highly storied mushroom is plenty of thrill for most. This is exactly why I believe that it has been mentioned here and there throughout history: it’s a hot topic.

    I certainly wouldn’t recommend a toxic mushroom for the table just because most of the time it is easy to identify. Use that knowledge to avoid it for the table, not embrace it. But that’s just common sense.

    Your philosophy may vary.

    Thanks for reading,
    Debbie Vies

    • Margaret Doherty says:

      I agree totally with everything you say. A dear friend of mine was given a tincture made out off fly Amanita muscaria and vodka. She only dabbed it on to her flesh were old scars were. When going to bed she felt fine, then awoke in a psychotic episode that has continued now for 7 weeks. Ibotenic acid poisoning interferes with your Gabba A transmitter pathways. When dabbing it on her skin it went through the most permeable part of her skin straight into the blood and through the blood-brain barrier dear friend is not the same. You may say this is a rare case but Beware! Beware! Be aware.

    • You appear to be saying that it is fine to eat, say, one whole fly agaric mushroom or one slice of a whopper) and that the bad press is due to excessive consumption – say, 2 or more mushrooms – which sounds plain dumb anyway. If we allowed gross stupidity to rule our lives there’s no telling what would happen…oh we do already! p.s. I gave my cat a teaspoon of amanita muscaria and he was missing for…3 minutes.

  • Mike Skaruppa says:

    Hi I don’t mean to ask foolish questions but I’ve found a group of these muscaria but they aren’t red they have a yellow cap with a bright red center it has the white spores but it doesn’t match any of the pics. I’ve seen is this still safe to ingest if prepared properly?

    • mark says:

      The colour in a.muscaria is (like the toxins) water-soluble. After wet periods they can often look orange or even yellow. The deeper red centre suggests that this i what has happened. At this stage they are likely to be well past their best for preparing for eating.
      There is also a yelow form of fly agaric – Amanita muscaria var formosa. It has a yellow or orange-yellow cap with yellowish warts, and a yellowish stem. Native to N America, not sure if its present in Europe. I am not familiar with it, so would hesitate to give advice. My expectation would be that it can be treated in the same way as its more common relative.
      Mark

  • John says:

    Try Reading:

    Amanita Muscaria: Herb Of Immortality, By Don Teeter, it is free to download from AmbrosiaSociety.org

  • Jackson Shinn says:

    I found a bunch of these mushrooms in 7/3/205 in
    south Dakota’s Custer state park. I left them alone for not knowing what they were. I do not see how to attach a photo for conformation. if you email me at mm3ss678@gmail I will send you a couple of of jpeg pics the one I am looking at right is showing 8.87 MB I have 7 photos all ovver 8 Mb for each one.

    Thank You,
    Jackson Shinn

  • Ray Hopkins says:

    In Led Zepplins “The song remains the same” isn’t this the culprit that sends Jimmy on a wild ride? Do you recommend that?

    • mark says:

      I’ve heard that the film includes a fantasy scene in which he eats some, but not heard any reports that it was responsible for their output! I can’t recommend taking class A drugs on a public forum. Best to read as much information as possible and make an informed decision for yourself.
      Cheers, be safe,
      Mark.

  • Amanda says:

    This is a fantastic piece, thanks for writing it. I wasn’t aware of the detoxification process for this mushroom to make it safe to consume, thanks for detailing it out.

  • Anne says:

    My son picked and ate them washed peeled sliced and fried in butter with salt and pepper. They smelled delicious. I’m not a great fan of edible mushrooms any way but he ate 3 caps and had no ill effects. Not even a hallucination or purge. He said he would happily eat them again because they had a rich meaty flavour. The place we picked them was in the countryside near Carluke in a small open copice of trees. And the month was September. He has also eaten yew berries in the way described above. I would be more wary of yew berries than amanita muscaria.

    • Mark Williams says:

      That’s interesting Anne, but not something i’d recommend. The toxins are water soluble, but need rinsed away. Cooking alone is not guaranteed to break it down.

  • jaybird says:

    I have foraged mushrooms before, edible, and magick. Once someone i was with, told me a way to enjoy fly agaric without the dissapointment or poison…so i tried. Paling off the jelly top parts off, especially where a bug has nibbled, about a pea size when rolled up in your fingers. The rest of the walk was boingy, light, colourful and happy…..not sure of any of the science behind that, but never did it again, lovely little thing of beauty, even if just to appreciate visually …

  • Alice says:

    Wow I need to get out more, I have only seen this type in books and cartoons and just assumed it was a myth like unicorns or leprechauns – I’m amazed that these spotted red things actually do exist!

  • Will Dawbarn says:

    Wow, now this is interesting. Some years ago, I tried the fly agaric, frying it up with some garlic, just a little to start with… then a little more… I think I ended up eating one medium-sized cap. I had no ill effects, but I was rather disappointed to find I had no hallucinogenic ones, either.
    Glad to have found your site, you have inspired me to continue my experiments with this.

  • Travis says:

    I ate one and it was very small and red with white spots i bouled it and felt nothing. Stupid.

  • Andy says:

    Hi there folks, just putting my ten penny worth in here .
    Im 56, been foraging since 11/12 years old have eaten so many wild products, some with ill effects but nothing wild has made me as ill as eating a bit of off chicken from a supermarket. Not fly Agaric, not Magic mushrooms of which i have taken several types. As long as you educate yourself enough to be sure about what your imbibing you will have no probs ,,, theres also many apps now that will identify your fungi.
    Even if your looking for a psychedelic experience there is enough info out there to remove any risk of death to yourself. Mushrooms and Fungi have been used for food and shamanistic ritual for 100s if not 1000s of years, even science is starting to embrace the medicinal properties of some hallucinogenic shrooms for the treatment of depression. So hail the humble fungi hail mama nature she will produce all that we need if nurtured and made able.

  • Andy says:

    P.S. only just found this site I know Galloway well my folks live in Stranraer, just want to say how well put together it is, informative and myth busting refreshing and honest 🙂

  • I saw a couple at a roadside overlook on my way to Nenana Hotsprings Alaska. I posted a couple pics on my facebook page. They were beautiful and a treat to see as i live in Fl and there are none in southern us.

  • Chris Mchale says:

    can i eat them once there washed no cooking and how many.Thanks

  • Jeggie says:

    I was at a stand in the local museum showing the public a seasonal collection of Mushrooms a few years ago. One Russian lady came up to me and asked about edibility and I gave her a rundown of some of the samples ending with various Amanitas. She then went on to tell me that she had eaten most of them (Presumably not A.Phalloides or A.Virosa) by simmering and changing the water a couple of times – something I had heard of as rendering A.Rubescens safe to eat. I got the distinct idea that Russians will eat any mushroom and blame the resulting liver damage on Vodka.

  • Anna Valentine says:

    This is a fascinating and informative post. So controversial, I love it! Thanks so much for sharing Mark.

Leave a Reply to Antraeus Voltage Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *