You just never know what a little mushroom study is going to reveal! This discovery on a casual walk in my neighborhood took me down the rabbit hole with Alice and out onto northern tundra with the Sami—and beyond! Hang on.
I was on a stroll admiring the fantastic leaf show we are enjoying this year when I happened to notice these almost-cartoon like mushrooms sprouting in a nearby garden. This is the first time I have found fly amanita outside of a book. This cluster all sported the bright red caps with small whitish bits, stark-white thick stems with knobby bases and the characteristic white gills. It was an exciting find!
In Margaret’s classic text on edible and non-edible mushrooms, The Savory Wild Mushroom, these beauties fall into the do-not-eat category. She writes, “This is the mushroom so often pictured in European fairy tales.” And indeed, I recognized it from a children’s book very popular in this household when fairy stories were the rage. Margaret further explains, “It is called ‘fly amanita’ because it is thought a decoction made from it kills flies. It is definitely dangerous but fortunately, it is quite easy to recognize; the bright red, orange, or yellow cap with its white warts is in itself a conspicuous warning for even the most unwary collector.”
I wasn’t thinking of picking any and certainly not sautéing any for lunch, but I was still curious about the connection with fairy stories. Mushrooms attract all kinds of lore and magical associations, no doubt because some of them do contain substances that induce visions and dreams and other shamanic experiences. A little poking around uncovered just such a link with this red-capped amanita that seemed to come out of the oldest prehistoric days but still plays a role in cultural practices of some Sami, the indigenous people of the sub- and Arctic lands of the Scandinavian countries and parts of Russia. Sami who still maintain some of their traditional semi-nomadic ways, rely heavily on their herds of reindeer for meat, fur and sledge transportation.
The people and reindeer have evolved together for survival in this rather harsh landscape for thousands of years, foraging for food with an intimate knowledge of their environment. The large feet of the deer allow them better purchase in the snow and enable them to dig under it in winter for their sustenance. And one of their favorite foods is—surprise—the fly amanita. They absolutely relish the fruited form of this fungi and it appears to do them no harm. Shamans seem to have taken a cue from the reindeer and also partook of this delicacy, which was said to induce visions that felt like flying while in trances. I’m not sure what to think of the free associations of the online sources that coupled red clad magical figures pulled by flying reindeer who may, or may not, have had red noses from imbibing hallucinogenic substances.
[See, for instance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkCS9ePWuLU ]
But, well, where do stories of the North Pole, sleighs full of toys, and midnight rides that can magically circle the globe in one long night originate? The bright red mushroom with the bits of white “fur” trim, though definitely not for eating, is a storied fruit! If you should see it, you’ll never forget it. And now you’ll have even more to wonder.