By Charlotte Owen
Fairy tales may be full of magic and adventure but their roots are often dark and disturbing. It’s only fitting that the infamous fairy-tale toadstool, so appealing on the surface with its bright red cap and little white spots, is not only toxic but can induce mind-bending hallucinations.
The Fly Agaric belongs to the genus Amanita, a motley crew of dangerous yet enticingly beautiful fungi that have tempted people throughout history to dice with death. Their names all convey warnings from Deathcap to Panther Cap, Fool’s Mushroom and Destroying Angel. Fly Agaric seems tame in comparison and the name reflects its historical use as an insecticide. Small pieces were crumbled into a saucer of milk so that the toxins would leach out, luring passing flies to drink a poisoned meal.
Going back even further, Fly Agaric was used by shamans and druids to induce euphoria and commune with the spirit world. Legend has it that the tradition arose in northern Europe when people noticed Reindeer acting strangely after eating red mushrooms. Putting two and two together, they tried eating the intoxicated reindeer to experience the effect for themselves. Bizarrely, this may be the origin of some of today’s Christmas legends and traditions, including flying reindeer and nocturnal gift deliveries. Long ago, in the depths of Arctic winter, Siberian shamans would visit people’s homes to deliver gifts of magic mushrooms on the winter solstice. They often dressed in red and, if deep snow blocked the doorway, they would enter via the yurt’s smoke hole on the roof, sliding down the central birch pole. On this basis, perhaps Rudolph’s red nose was in fact a mouthful of mushroom.
The links may be tenuous but the Fly Agaric was certainly common on Christmas cards in Victorian and Edwardian times, when it was seen as a symbol of good luck. Little red mushrooms still grace many a modern Christmas tree, which is apt since they naturally grow under pine and spruce. Beneath the surface, a fine network of hair-like fungal hyphae entwine with the host tree’s roots but despite parasitic appearances, this is in fact one of nature’s most fundamental symbiotic relationships.