Monday, 2 November 2015

Magic Mushrooms and the magic of mushrooms in autumn

Why are mushrooms so magical? 

Mushrooms have something magical about them whether they are the hallucinogenic varieties or simply because of their weird forms. The way they appear so quickly after rains is just like magic. And mushrooms have always been associated with fairy tales.  Gnomes, pixies, elves and fairies are often depicted along with toadstools, with the red and white spotted fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) being one of the most popular mushrooms associated with the fairy folk.  How many times have you seen pictures of gnomes or fairies sat on these fungi or even living in them?

Alice in Wonderland in Public Domain

And the hookah smoking caterpillar in Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland is depicted sitting on a mushroom!

Wild mushrooms in the Fall

Autumn is the time when all sorts of wild mushrooms appear, seemingly overnight in many instances. This is the time of year when it is easiest to discover fungi growing in the countryside, in parks and gardens.  Some species are, of course, edible and many people go out foraging for these edible species, species like the Edible Boletus or Cep (Boletus edulis).

Cep in Public Domain

There is something exciting about discovering wild mushrooms. It is like feeling we are in touch with our hunter-gatherer ancestors of long long ago. 

Every year the mushrooms and toadstools start to appear not long after the autumn rains have soaked the ground.  We find clumps of fungi popping up in grassland, in the forests and even in our flower-beds and garden plots. 

The Fly Agaric

Fly Agaric Photo: larsjuh

The fly agaric is one of the most colourful toadstools we can find in autumn. It mainly grows under birch trees and pines and is so easy to spot because of its brightly coloured caps. This fungus is hallucinogenic and has been thought to be connected with the origins of Santa Claus. This is because its effects when consumed can include feelings of floating, also because it is used as an entheogen by tribal people and shamans in Lapland and Siberia where there are reindeer, which are the animals that help pull Santa's sleigh at Christmas.

The Liberty Cap

Liberty Cap Magic Mushroom Photo: John Johnston

The liberty cap (Psilocybe semilanceata) is probably the most well-known "magic mushroom" because of the psilocybin and psilocin it contains, which substances cause intoxication and hallucinations when consumed. This has caused it to become considered as a drug and it is illegal to possess these mushrooms in the UK now. 

The liberty cap grows in fields, on grassy hillsides and on large lawns in parks. It is very common in some areas and continues growing until the first real frosts. 

You can read more about the fly agaric and the liberty cap in my book Herbs of the Northern Shaman

Weird fungi like the Earthstar

Earthstar Photo: Orangeaurochs)

Earthstars are some of the weirdest fungi you can find in autumn, and they can persist right through the winter months. They look like some sort of strange alien life-form with arms like a starfish and an inflated sac in the centre that can puff out clouds of spores.  These fungi can actually move but this depends on weather conditions which enable the arms to move the body of the fungus up from the surrounding earth. Often they will break away completely but this does not matter because the fungus is still able to disperse its tiny spores that are blown away in the wind.

One of the most well-known earthstars is Geastrum triplex.  It is mainly found growing under beeches, although I had a colony of this weird fungus growing for many years under a large privet bush at the bottom of my garden.  It was like magic, how they arrived there, like a mini invasion of alien beings from the stars and looking like stars.

The Private Life of Plants: Earthstars

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