Friday 19 December 2014

Fly Agaric Magic Mushroom linked with Father Christmas

Fly Agarics. Photo in Public Domain

The Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is a brightly coloured hallucinogenic mushroom that is often used in illustrations for fairy stories, and perhaps with very good reason. The substances muscimol and ibotenic acid it contains produce intoxication and altered reality and consumption of this toadstool has been used to produce visionary states. Because of this it is included in my book Herbs of the Northern Shaman.

Because of this, and its known use by shamans of Lapland, Siberia and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, the fungus has been linked with the myth of Santa Claus. The Fly Agaric is coloured red and white just like the traditional costume that Father Christmas wears.

The Fly Agaric is sometimes eaten by reindeer and Santa Claus travels in a sleigh drawn by these animals. They fly through the sky and it has been suggested that hallucinations brought about by the ingestion of this fungus might have something to do with this fanciful idea.

The author and ethnobotanist R. Gordon Wasson suggested that the Fly Agaric was the mystical soma mentioned in the Rig Veda, sacred book of the Hindus. John Marco Allegro in his 1970 book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross went as far as suggesting that the Christian religion was founded by practitioners of an ancient fertility cult who were ritual users of this fungus and Biblical texts were inspired by visions they experienced. 

It has been suggested that part of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland was inspired by the Fly Agaric because it is known to cause hallucinations in which size becomes distorted. 

Hookah Smoking Caterpillar and Alice - Illustration by Sir John Tenniel (Public Domain)

Fly Agarics grow in groups under pine and birch, as well as under other trees.  They can be found in autumn and are common in some places. They grow in the UK, many parts of Europe, and across Asia, as well as in Canada and North America. 

Fly Agarics are reported to be edible after parboiling and the fungus has been eaten in some places. Recreational drug users and modern neo-shamans use the fungus as an entheogen, especially after the psilocybin magic mushrooms became an illegal drug in many countries such as the UK. 

The Fly Agaric is a fungus we all know about, if only from having seen it in fairy tales and in artwork.

Fly agarics in Rubezahl by Moritz von Schwind (Public Domain)

Sunday 14 December 2014

The Common Chameleon lives in the Algarve

Common Chameleon. Photo in Public Domain

One of the most interesting reptiles found in Portugal is the Common Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon).

It is green, yellowish-green or brown and lives mainly in bushes in scrubland. It can be found in the Algarve area in the south of Portugal and also lives in southern Spain, Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Morocco.

In Portugal the Common Chameleon is under threat due mainly to habitat loss from the continuing building projects that serve the tourist trade.  It is also caught for the pet trade but sadly captive specimens often do not live long.

The Common Chameleon feeds mainly on insects and spiders but is reported to also turn cannibal and eat smaller individuals of its own species.

Common Chameleons hibernate in the winter months when food is scarce. They dig themselves small burrows in the ground.

Common chameleons are usually solitary animals that establish territories but they come together for mating. The females lay clutches of eggs that they bury in the ground.  The eggs can take as much as a year to incubate. 

The Swallowtail Butterfly in Portugal

Swallowtail. Photo by Steve Andrews

Just over a week back I was happy to watch a female swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon) emerge from a chrysalis that had formed from a caterpillar I had helped rear. It had fed on rue (Ruta graveolens) that was growing in the front garden where I live in Portugal.

I watched this magnificent insect wait until her wings were dried and expanded successfully but it was late in the day and with the early darkness the newly emerged swallowtail had to wait until the next morning before I could release her into the sunlight.

I was surprised to see this butterfly emerge as late in the year as early December, although it can still get warm in the day when the sun is out and other species of butterfly are still flying.

The caterpillar of the swallowtail butterfly feeds on various plants in the parsley family, as well as rue in continental populations but in the UK the larvae will only take milk parsley. 

Swallowtail caterpillar on rue. Photo by Steve Andrews

Fortunately for swallowtails in Portugal the rue is often grown in gardens where it forms large clumps or small bushes.

Swallowtails are very rare Britain and only found in the Norfolk Broads where they live in the fenlands where their foodplant grows. The swallowtail is one of the rarest and largest species of British butterfly.

In recent years the continental swallowtail has been reported in the UK as well and it is thought to have crossed the channel as migrants.