The Trippy Truth About Amanita muscaria, The World’s Most Famous Mushroom
“The results were disappointing. We felt nauseated and some of us threw up. We felt disposed to sleep, and fell into a deep slumber from which shouts could not rouse us, lying like logs, not snoring, dead to the outside world. When in this state I once had vivid dreams, but nothing like what happened when I took the Psilocybe mushrooms in Mexico.”
On the other hand, Wasson immediately thereafter records the experience of a friend whose Amanita-inspired elation “was nothing like the alcoholic state; it was infinitely better, beyond all comparison.” Other stories are less innocent—the mushroom’s been accused of inspiring the “berserk” behavior of the Berserkers, and people recount injuries sustained during Amanita trips.
The mushroom presents us with a long list of fascinating issues: its pharmacology, its cultural representation and role in folklore, and its ostensible status as an ancient religious catalyst, to name just a few. Yet, my aim here is to provide clarity or at least to show where the lack of clarity lies, concerning the most common questions about this one-of-a-kind fungus.
A Brief Amanita muscaria History
Amanita muscaria, Santa & Siberian Shamans
Amanita muscaria & Berserkers
Is Amanita muscaria Psychedelic?
Amanita muscaria Active Compounds
Is A. Muscaria Poisonous?
The Amanita muscaria Trip
Although some Amanita experiences—like Wasson’s friend mentioned above—may be pleasant and hold personal or cultural significance, accidents and injuries do occur. These accidents and injuries may be more likely with high doses of the mushroom in unsupervised settings. In a podcast interview recalling the camera incident, Stamets tells another story in which a man repeatedly jumped off a bridge, allowing his body to slam into the ground after a high dosage of Amanita mushrooms. Stamets continues: “I definitely advise not doing this—I always thought that if I was ever called as an expert witness, having these experiences, and someone was watching Tales from the Crypt on TV and then they saw a knife… It causes temporary insanity.”
For Feeney, the fly agaric experience is best described as a potpourri of effects from many different drug categories. He lists the mushroom’s possible—though not guaranteed—effects in a Venn Diagram: deliriant, depressant, disassociative, psychedelic, and stimulant. What users experience with one dose of A. muscaria may vary from what they experience with another. Some who try A. muscaria report not experiencing much of anything at all. Thus, the Amanita trip is a mixed bag and unpredictable—and sometimes not safe.
Additionally, the fly agaric’s effects are not limited to the repetitive delirium it produces in the mind. Some of the known physical symptoms of Amanita are excessive sweating and salivating, diuresis, and blurred vision. Gastrointestinal discomfort is an especially common result, even more so than with traditional psychedelics. And the discomfort can take on a more wrenching intensity, causing users to feel they have been punched in several normally unreachable places at once.
Amanita muscaria vs. Psilocybe
It’s important to remember that while A. muscaria is psychoactive, it is notably different from psilocybin mushrooms. Amanita’s psychoactive effects are distinct and unlike what one might expect from Psilocybe and other psychedelic fungi. Amanita is also prepared and dosed differently: Standard dosages of magic mushrooms don’t apply to the fly agaric.
A. muscaria doesn’t contain psilocybin or psilocin: It contains muscimol and ibotenic acid, which have different mechanisms of action. Psilocybin shows promise for various potential health benefits, including the treatment of end-of-life depression and substance dependence. It’s also associated with occasioning mystical experiences, which study participants have ranked among their most meaningful life experiences, alongside marriage. Neither muscimol nor ibotenic acid is associated with the same therapeutic benefits as psilocybin, although Amanita does have a history of use in shamanic practice.
Additionally, Psilocybe and other psilocybin mushrooms lack the deliriant, depressant, and disassociative properties of Amanita muscaria. Waking up under a strange tree after running five miles through the forest and scaling five barbed wire fences without remembering is an unlikely experience during a psilocybin trip.
The Safe(r) Way to Use Fly Agaric
It’s no secret: A. muscaria can inspire some challenging trips. But, an active community of consumers and enthusiasts celebrates this iconic fungus. Although the Amanita experience can be unpredictable, safe-use practices can reduce harm and limit opportunities for accidents and injuries. When prepared properly, some myco-enthusiasts even eat Amanita as a non-intoxicating edible mushroom (just make sure you boil it enough—and properly). Enthusiasts of its psychoactive potential have developed a series of best practices for safe(r) tripping.
Amanita experiences always come with risk. Like any other substance, the only way to avoid risk is by not eating it at all. But, if you choose to engage with the mushroom, one scholar recommends “developing a relationship with Amanita muscaria before attempting to dive into a major experience.” Starting with a low dose and increasing incrementally over time is a standard approach for engaging with psychoactive substances. Larger doses of A. muscaria are more likely to cause intense experiences with greater safety concerns.
The Safe(r) Way to Use Fly Agaric
How to Prepare Amanita muscaria
Fly Agaric Identification
Before diving into identification, let me say: Everything in this article is intended as information, not instruction. Mushroom identification is a craft that takes substantial time to develop; seasoned hunters advise searching with care and in consultation with a competent forager.
Fortunately, the fly agaric’s large, bright red and white-speckled cap makes it difficult to miss. Its cap can be anywhere from eight to 20 centimeters and, depending on age and subspecies, it may feature yellow or orange coloring.
A mature A. muscaria has an annulus or ring, a skirt-like or collar-like formation around the stem. It is a remnant of its partial veil—sometimes called an inner veil—which connects the cap and stipe (stem) during maturation to protect the developing gills. The veil stretches and breaks as the fruit body grows, leaving an annulus behind, though, sometimes, the annulus falls off, leaving the stem bare.
Amanita mushrooms also have a volva at the base of the stipe. The volva is a cup-like structure at the base of the stem, a remnant of its universal veil (outer veil). The universal veil envelopes the entire fruit body in its infancy, giving it the appearance of an egg. As the mushroom grows, the veil breaks apart. The result is a volva at the bottom and little “speckles” or “warts” on the cap, like pieces of a broken eggshell. This process is how A. muscaria gets its spots. In other Amanita species, the volva breaks differently and does not leave warts or speckles on the cap.
Fly Agaric Habitat
A. muscaria is typically wild-foraged, not cultivated. The fungus is ectomycorrhizal, which means it survives only in a symbiotic relationship with a nearby plant. The most common hosts are trees: birches (Betula spp.), pines (Pinus spp.), spruces (Picea spp.), firs (Abies spp.) and larches (Larix spp.), according to biologist József Geml et al/. Yet, a wide variety of species are compatible with A. muscaria: The mushroom is partial to certain shrubs and other plants in certain climates and environmental conditions.
A. muscaria mostly grows under the boughs of trees in large forests of compatible hosts. In terms of geographical locale, Geml et al. tell us that: “A. muscaria is native to temperate or boreal forest regions of the Northern Hemisphere; however, it has been introduced to New Zealand, Australia, South America, and South Africa.” So, almost everywhere.
Amanita muscaria Look-alikes
Fly Agaric Varieties
A. muscaria, subsp. flavivolvata:
- Cap Color: Similar to A. muscaria, var. muscaria, except that warts are cream-colored.
- Region: North American pacific coast and the Rocky Mountains from Alaska to Costa Rica
- Look-alikes: A. chrysoblema, A. aprica, which contain the same toxins as A. muscaria.
A. muscaria, var. guessowii
- Cap Color: Cap is anywhere from yellow to orangish-yellow; warts are white.
- Region: NE North America from Quebec and Newfoundland to Michigan and North Carolina
- Look-alikes: A. crenulata, A. flavoconia, A. frostiana, A. gemmata, A. persicina, A. praecox, A. wellsii
One mushroom that shares some features with A. muscaria is the European mushroom A. pantherina, an Amanita sp. with a dark to light brown or tannish brown cap and white, cream, or buff-colored warts. The species has a similar pharmacological profile to that of A. muscaria and, like its red and white-speckled cousin, is non-fatal. Still, there are two reasons for caution here: First, the alkaloid (psychoactive) concentration is much higher in A. pantherina than in A. muscaria—up to three times as high or even higher. This strength—along with other toxins— can contribute to unpredictable and difficult experiences, including sickness and delirium.
Second, Barlow mentions that A. pantherina has deadly look-alikes; indeed there are dozens of deadly Amanita species. As such, he advises against foraging for A. pantherina altogether. Ditto for white-capped psychoactive Amanitas, such as A. chrysoblema. Chrysoblema contains the same chemistry as A. muscaria, but the former can easily be confused with A. virosa (“European Destroying Angel”) or another fatal species.
North American mushrooms include Amanita pantherinoides and others. iNaturalist lists more A. muscaria look-alikes.
Is Amanita muscaria Legal?
Amanita muscaria is legal in most places—but certainly not all. Feeney’s Fly Agaric Compendium proposes three potential reasons why A. muscaria is, by and large, unregulated: “(1) they are generally considered poisonous; (2) psychoactive effects are elusive and difficult to achieve without knowledge of dosing and preparation techniques; and (3) the active compounds (ibotenic acid, muscimol) are important research chemicals.”
A few countries have outlawed the fungus, however. In Australia, muscimol falls under Schedule 9 (“Prohibited Substance,” the most restrictive schedule) in the Poisons Standard February 2022 of the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989. According to the Standard, the “manufacture, possession, sale, or use” of substances in this schedule “should be prohibited by law except when required for medical or scientific research or for analytical, teaching, or training purposes with approval of Commonwealth and/or State or Territory Health Authorities.” While Australian law exempts natural forms for some compounds, such exemptions are not specified for Amanitas. Thus, ingesting them would still constitute the “possession” and “use” of muscimol.
Similarly, the Netherlands outlawed A. muscaria when they outlawed Psilocybe carpophores. The ban was inspired by a series of Psilocybe-related incidents, one of which involved the death of a French teenager on a school-organized visit. The current law (original | English) includes “amanita muscaria muscaria” in List II, a group of substances Article 3 says are illegal to possess, etc. Consultation of the law court’s archive to compare the law before and after officials considered the French student’s death reveals the change in statute.
In the United States, A. muscaria is legal except in Louisiana, where “It shall be unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally to produce, manufacture, distribute, or possess with intent to produce, manufacture, or distribute a material, compound, mixture, or preparation intended for human consumption which contains a hallucinogenic.” Of note is the apparent omission of possession with intent to consume. Still, the point may be moot anyway, as Feeney highlights that “for Louisiana natives, the local psychoactive variety is Amanita persicina, not Amanita muscaria.”
There are a few other countries generally rumored to bar Amanita consumption, but their statutes are either unclear/incomplete or not widely available. The wisest course of action is to consult local laws. It’s always better to be safe than to be sorry.