Everyone who has spent even one late-summer day foraging for mushrooms in the mountains of Arizona is likely to have seen the beautiful and distinctive fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, in the flesh. And even those who have never hunted mushrooms are familiar with it too. From the Brothers Grimm to the Mario Brothers, this cheery red-capped sporocarp with white spots is the very archetype of a mushroom in our culture. Mushroom hunters are always glad to see it. In part this is due to its inherent beauty, but even more so because its presence means the environmental conditions are good for finding many kinds of cherished edible mushrooms, especially the delectable members of the Boletus genus.
Because it contains significant quantities of the psychoactive compounds muscimol, ibotenic acid, and muscazone, A. muscaria has been used since time immemorial as a hallucinogenic intoxicant by certain non-Western cultures. These compounds activate receptors in the brain that produce visual and auditory hallucinations as well as a sedative/hypnotic effect. There is even speculation that the importance of A. muscaria to the culture of the indigenous reindeer herders of Lapland and the Russian North may have contributed to some of the pagan aspects of our traditional Christmas celebration, including the red and white color of Santa Claus’s costume, the mysterious appearance of gifts under a tree, and the notion of flying reindeer pulling a sleigh.
While consumption of this species is very unlikely to prove fatal, it does have a number of physical side effects. For the most part these are merely unpleasant, such as dry mouth and pronounced nausea, but it can cause a racing or irregular heartbeat that may be quite serious. A few fatal overdoses have been reported anecdotally, and most authorities consider it a dangerous and toxic fungus that is to be avoided.
However, a few knowledgeable daredevils have experimented with preparation methods adapted from non-Western European cultural traditions to remove the psychoactive and toxic compounds from A. muscaria, leaving behind what they claim is an innocuous and tasty edible. These typically involve boiling the thinly sliced mushroom in a large volume of water, often in conjunction with salt and/or vinegar. Much of the recent interest in this topic follows a 2008 article entitled “A Study of Cultural Bias in Field Guide Determinations of Mushroom Edibility Using the Iconic Mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as an Example“, published in the journal Economic Botany by well-known mushroom expert and author David Arora and his collaborator William Rudel.
This controversy was a factor in a very unusual and unfortunate occurrence here in Arizona just a few months ago. As we reported here previously, the entire press run of the October 2013 issue of the well-known magazine Arizona Highways had to be recalled because it contained a photograph of A. muscaria that labeled it an “edible” mushroom. In their press release at the time of the recall, they stated, “The fly agaric mushroom should not be consumed in its raw form because of its unpredictable psychotropic and physical effects.” Well, a lot of people didn’t think it should be consumed in its non-raw form either, even after the preparations discussed above, and thus continued to find the magazine’s response to the error unsatisfactory even after the recall statement.
It would appear that someone at the magazine had mistaken the rather premature and perhaps dangerous experimentations of Arora, Rubel, and their devotees for the consensus opinion of all fungal experts. Arora is of course one of the giants in the field, but there are other voices on the topic, and most of them are agreed: this is not a mushroom to be considered edible by the average mushroom collector, not even after detoxification. Just recently another recognized Amanita expert, Debbie Viess, weighed in on the controversy with a detailed article in the pages of Mushroom, the Journal of Wild Mushrooming. She finds significant fault with the article by Arora and Rubel, and advises great caution in following their example.
The Viess article is, in my judgment, the definitive word on the question of A. muscaria edibility at this point in time. It’s worth keeping an eye on the issue, as it would be delightful to be able to consume this large, common, and easily visible fruiting body if it could be done with a definitive assurance of safety. But for now, anticipating the bonanza of much safer boletes that are often found fruiting nearby at the same time, let us admire its beauty but leave it in the field.
Addendum, 12/22/2013: David Arora has responded to Debbie Viess on the MushroomTalk mailing list, with a detailed discussion of preparation techniques, and what seem like reasonable objections to her worries:
[Compare to] kidney beans. Eating just a few raw, soaked beans can send one to the hospital, and they become 5 times more poisonous if undercooked. Yet I don’t know anyone suggesting that people stop eating them or that they be labeled poisonous. The difference is one of familiarity & precedent – at some point they became part of our cuisine, and we accept them as such. We know how to prepare them because we are familiar with them. In other words, we trust them. But many of us don’t trust A. muscaria because we are taught that it is poisonous, just as a majority of people in our culture don’t trust ANY wild mushrooms in the kitchen because they have been taught to fear them.
I’m still on the side of Debbie Viess here, but wish that further scientific research would be undertaken to solve the problem once and for all. I’d love to gather this mushroom for the table if it could be done safely.