Fairytales and Fungi: The Magical World of Amanita Muscaria

While looking out the window of my office on a gray October morning I noticed an abundance of mushrooms had sprouted up on the lawn seemingly overnight. Considering this wasn’t the busiest morning at the Arboretum, we decided to pop down to investigate and see if the mushrooms might inspire some content to work on during a slow day in the office. Few lawn mushrooms could be quite as inspiring as what we found, Amanita muscaria, also known as the fly agaric.

amanita viles

Amanita muscaria

Amanita muscaria red

Amanita mushrooms can be considered the inspiration for much of the mushroom imagery we are familiar with; the little red capped mushrooms with white spots. While I have stumbled upon both the classic red and white variety at the Arboretum from time to time, I more frequently see them in the yellow and orange colors pictured here. Amanita muscaria is just one of many amanita species that can be found in Maine. Other members of the family include Amanita jacksonii, which is regarded as an excellent wild edible, and Amanita bisporigera, more commonly known as the “Destroying Angel”. Destroying Angel is perhaps one of the most poisonous mushrooms in the Maine woods. Amanita muscaria however, while commonly regarded as inedible, has a fascinating history of human consumption. 

The chemical responsible for making Amanita muscaria risky to consume is ibotenic acid, which is converted by the liver into muscimol, a psychoactive compound. As a result consumption of the Amanita muscaria can result in hallucinations. Historically, the mushroom was widely used by many cultures in rituals and ceremonies. Fly agaric consumption is believed to have a strong relationship with some of our well known Christmas traditions and stories. Evidence suggests the nomadic reindeer herding people of Lapland used the mushroomAmanita_muscaria_santa.png extensively during celebrations, likely resulting in the legends of flying reindeer that we are familiar with today. In central Asia, shamans would collect the mushroom in special red garments trimmed with white fur and return to their yurts through the smoke hole with a bag full of Amanita muscaria to share, inspiring the figure we now know as Santa Claus. 

The role of Amanita muscaria in the development of holiday traditions celebrated around the winter solstice is just one of many examples of the deep connections between human traditions and our natural world. As we transition into a time of year filled with celebrations and seasonal change, take some time to ponder the origins of those stories we share.



By Lauren Kircheis