Amanitas are a family of large, beautiful mushrooms that grow in many parts of the world. Some of them are deadly, the most poisonous of all wild mushrooms. Some are edible and delicious. Two are neither deadly nor edible as food but are used as psychoactive drugs.
Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric, is a big mushroom with white dots on a red or orange cap. [Agaric is an old word for mushroom; the name fly comes from an old practice of chopping this mushroom into a saucer of milk to attract and kill flies.) The fly agaric is often pictured in illustrations of fairy tales and cannot be mistaken for any other mushroom. Fly agarics growing in the
Sacred datura, Datura meteloides, growing along a roadside near Tucson, Arizona. (Andrew Weil)
eastern United States are yellow and not usually psychoactive. Those in the western states are red or orange; their pharmacological power correlates with cap color, the reddest mushrooms being strongest.
Amanita muscaria was the traditional intoxicant of a number of primitive tribes of Siberia — people who did not have access to other drugs but did have a shamanistic religion similar to that of many Native Americans. News stories about the intoxicating effect of this mushroom in the 1960s led many young people in California and other western states to experiment with it as a new natural high.
People have consumed the fly agaric in many forms. The red peel of the cap, which is easily removed, can be dried and smoked. The whole mushroom can be eaten fresh, cooked, or dried; or it can be brewed into a tea and drunk. These different preparations may produce different results. Also, the mushrooms seem to vary greatly in strength and effect depending on where and when they grow and what trees they grow around.
Moderate doses cause a dreamy intoxication that some people find pleasant, but there are often uncomfortable physical symptoms. High doses can produce delirious excitement and significant toxicity. The effect comes on within thirty minutes and lasts for four to eight hours.
The responsible chemicals are ibotenic acid and muscimol, substances that resemble GABA, one of the brain's own neurotransmitters. Higher doses of them are found in a close relative of Amanita muscaria, a brown mushroom with white dots called the panther mushroom, or Amanita pantherina. It grows in woods in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the world, and in recent years many people have also experimented with it as a way of altering consciousness.
Again, the panther's effects are very variable, so that it may be hard to estimate a manageable dose and easy to take too much. High doses of the panther can make people very sick for up to twelve hours, and a few eaters of it have injured themselves as a result of accidents while they were delirious.
It would be foolish to experiment with either of these mushrooms without good advice from someone experienced with them about exact dose and method of preparation.
The panther mushroom, Amanita pantherina. growing in the woods in western Washington State. (Jeremy Bigwood)
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