Fungi Friday 30th October 2020

Fly agaric, the most iconic mushroom of them all, is currently fruiting en masse in southern England. Looking at social media feeds, it seems to be the case across the UK. In the past week I have witnessed lots of these red and white amanitas in the Sussex Weald. It reminded me of the need to finally crack on and address the issue of fly agaric’s bizarre cultural history. It’s very weird and not something I can prove. But here goes.

The ecology of fly agaric

Fly agaric is a mycorhizzal species. This means it has a special relationship with trees that benefits both the tree and the fungus. The above troop of fly agaric are connecting to the roots of a silver birch tree. The red and white mushrooms are ‘the fruit on the tree’ of the fungus. Under the soil the spreading mycelium, a network of hair-like threads or hyphae, are connected to the root hairs of the birch. The mushroom itself is a massing of the hyphae. The birch is able to ‘direct’ the underground hyphae to reach certain minerals and nutrients it is unable to gather itself. Likewise the fungus will receive water and sugars in support.

It’s the wood-wide web.

Fly agaric is classified as a toxic mushroom to humans. Don’t eat it. As I’ve mentioned here before, it lives in a family of some deadly poisonous mushrooms such as the deathcap and destroying angel. One common use for Europeans has been to kill other insects (surprise, surprise), which is where it gets its name. The mushrooms were mashed into a paste or suchlike and left on windowsills to kill flies. Agaric is an old name for a type of mushroom. There you have it.

Was Father Christmas a mushroom-eating shaman?

That escalated quickly.

A couple of years ago some friends of mine went on a fungi foraging course in Wiltshire, south-west England. They came back with a story which I stole and haven’t stopped lording over unsuspecting acquaintances ever since.

In the coldest parts of northern Europe, places like Scandinavia or Siberia, where birch and coniferous trees are dominant, it was once a ritual for fly agarics to be consumed for hallucinatory purposes. The mushrooms are toxic but were picked and put in sacks that people carried over their shoulders. Then they were left in the, often coniferous, trees to dry out. When the fly agarics were in the trees to dry, they looked like what we in the western world consider Christmas decorations.

Fly agaric does seem to have strong Christmas symbolism, particularly in 20th Century German Christmas greeting card culture.

I don’t know where to begin with this. There are also horseshoes in both these images which are seen as a good luck charm. Their resemblance to a crescent moon is supposed to be significant in Celtic religions.

Back to the mushrooms: when the mushrooms in those Christmas-like trees had finally dried, they were used for hallucinogenic purposes by a shaman. It is said that the shaman arrived on a sled led by reindeer. He clamboured into the tent where people lived, through a hole in the roof where smoke could escape, and climbed down a birch timber used to keep the tent upright:

During the winter families would invite a Shaman to visit, they would arrive on a reindeer led sleigh and enter the yurt through the smoke hole (or chimney) and down the central pole, bringing with them a bag of dried fly agaric. The shaman would take the mushroom and go on a hallucinogenic journey gaining healing knowledge and advice from other realms to problem solve and help with concerns, a type of spiritual gift to be rewarded with offerings of food.

https://moa.co.uk/blogs/news/father-christmas-and-fly-agaric-folklore

Furthermore, when people consumed the dried mushrooms, they had visions of the reindeer flying. Reindeer are also known to like fly agaric and people once used the mushrooms to herd reindeer. You should probably give yourself five minutes to let this all sink in.

For reasons other than Covid-19, Christmas may never be the same again.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms