The Amanita muscaria is an unusual fungus for many reasons. It is a mushroom that is very common in conifer areas in many parts of the northern hemisphere. The color always varies from bright red, yellow to orange to white, the cap is always covered by white patches – remnants of the universal veil that covered the button stage. In North America, there appears to be a kind of geographical distribution, with the orange form being predominant in the Midwest and East and the red form being found mostly in the West and Deep South. The yellow form is found mainly in the east, and the white form reportedly scattered all over the country. The Amanita muscaria can grow to quite large sizes, sometimes growing up to a foot high with caps as big as dinner plates. The mushroom is called the fly agaric because it is used to attract flies in some regions – little pieces of the mushroom are placed in milk to attract flies. The flies become intoxicated and hit themselves on walls and die.
In some parts, the Amanita Muscaria is used as an ornament. They usually serve as Christmas decorations because of their varied colors which give them some aesthetic value. During Christmas, a lot of families buy Christmas ornaments that are decorated with a Santa-like figure using the mushroom. In many parts of Europe too, the Amanita muscaria is considered good luck. In some Lottery kiosks or shops, Amanita muscaria is always displayed at the entrance of the booth. It is believed that you can win a car or even a house if you believe the smiling happy Amanita – quite interesting.
Apart from its use as ornamentation and for good luck, the Amanita muscaria is also often used as fruits in the same areas and at the same time as the Boletus edulis which is a quite delicious edible mushroom. Since Amanita muscaria has bright colors that can easily be sighted from afar, many mushroom hunters use them as an indicator that they should be looking nearby for the Boletus which is far harder to spot. The two mushrooms form mycorrhizal associations with conifers in the same area.
Besides its large fruiting bodies, the poisonous and hallucinogenic effect of this mushroom is a matter of substantial interest. Most fruiting bodies contain two toxins, muscimol and ibotenic acid. Ingestion of these toxins gives rise to what is called "expanded perception," or hallucination or what is commonly known as talking to God, palpitation (rapid heartbeat), macropsia (perceiving objects as enlarged), and or dry mouth. They are psychoactive and hallucinogenic – acting on the nervous system as neuropeptide receptors. Eating the mushrooms is also effective in turning off the fear emotion.
The Vikings normally use this mushroom anytime they are getting ready to invade a land, and they are usually very effective. The mushroom usually do help them (Vikings) turn off their fear emotions, thus retaining their reputation as people who are ferocious. In Northern Europe, many of the people lived in constant fear of invasion. Vikings would enter a village fearlessly, wreak havoc among the people and take their women. Before going into battle, the Vikings would go through a religious ritual in which they would dance around the woods and consume Amanita muscaria. So the primary reason the Vikings were able to fight without fear is that they were always on drugs! – In this case the Amanita Muscaria. For this reason, the Vikings were also known as the Berserkers.
Other cultures existed that used Amanita muscaria for recreational or religious purposes. The shamans in Siberia used the Amanita which they called "mukhomor," to speak to their gods. They believed Amanita muscaria to be Soma, which played a major role in Hindu culture and which they believed to have had a marked influence on the development of world religions.
There are also many side effects associated with Amanita muscaria. But the Vikings were lucky that they didn't have to endure a lot of nasty side effects as the mushroom is also known to have many adverse side effects. In many parts of the world, one of the things the Amanita muscaria does to people is to make them violently ill due to the presence of some toxic substances in it. These toxic substances are metabolized by the body while the hallucinogens are passed through the body without changes. To escape those side effects, what some people were doing was to get high drinking the urine of other people (or animals) who had ingested the mushrooms. Some specimens of the mushroom contain a large percentage of the chemical that makes you sick and very little of the one that makes you hallucinate. It can also be mistaken easily for Amanita pantherina or other Amanita species that are very poisonous. For these reasons, the use of this mushroom for recreational use is not recommended.
Animals are not left out at all – as there are also some animals that use Amanita muscaria for recreational purposes. Examples of these animals include squirrels and reindeer seek which out and eat Amanita muscaria for their euphoric effects.
Significant circumstantial evidence abounds that the Santa Claus myth originated somehow with Amanita muscaria. The design of the Christmas tree has a direct link with the mushroom. Think about this now; the Christmas tree is decorated with red clothes and the top adorned with white trim same as the cap of the Amanita muscaria. The myth has it that Santa is a modern counterpart of a shaman. Shaman as earlier seen is a Siberian tribe, who consumed plants that had the ability to alter their minds and fungi believed to be Amanita with which they communed with the spirit world. The flying reindeer and all the other things associated with Santa had its origin here.
In all, the Amanita is a very power fungus and the side effects can be very dangerous. So self-experimenting with this mushroom is strongly not advised. In particular, all Amanita species with a white or greenish cap should be avoided by all means as they are very poisonous and deadly.