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by Michael S. Smith
Harvesting Amanita muscaria
Depending on your climate Amanita muscaria will fruit from late Summer until Fall. In my own area of the upper Ohio River Valley the mushrooms will stop fruiting concurrent with the falling of the leave. It is a beautiful sight to come upon a site of these mushrooms, ranging in size from 2 inches to nearly a foot in diameter, and anywhere from a deep yellow or orange to a soft yellow or orange. Many will be dark orange at the apex surrounded by a halo of yellow. Some of the most recent ones I've gathered are of a pure gold, while others are the pure white Amanita muscaria v. alba. The stems can also be variable, from thin to thick, with basal rings or without, with small bases or bulbous. Though many mycologist give very detailed descriptions I have spoken with some individuals that say the species has quite variable features, even among the red variety. A very good book to read up on Amanita muscaria recognition and identification is David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified.
My own method of searching out this mysterious mushroom is by driving through the suburbs after a day of good rains or nice misty nights and passing slowly through the neighborhood peering under simply what I call pine trees. Here in our area we have numerous old pines scattered around homes but very few that grow in the wild. Many of the limbs grow all the way down to the ground, therefore it may be necessary to look under them, especially if they are in a dense clump. I can imagine someone looking into their backyard and seeing me climb out from under a clump of their trees with a handful, or sometimes a box full, of mushrooms. But don't think it's that hard, I've also seen many that have grown nearly 5 yards from the nearest tree.
Since these mushrooms grow almost always in residential neighborhoods I can often be found stopping at the side of the road rather quickly. I sometimes feel that I should have a sticker that says "this vehicle comes to sudden stops." Of course I put my blinkers on and jump out for the gathering, many a driver and homeowner peering on as I wave to them with a handful of Amanita muscaria's. Usually this can be done rather quickly and you can be on your way to the next patch, but sometimes, especially if a lot of mushrooms are present, or if they are in a sensitive area of the yard, you might want to ask the residents for permission. Occasionally I will go to the door and ask if I can collect their bounty. This gets many strange comments, including how they are toadstools and poisonous, or inquiries asking what I plan on doing with them. I have a number of different reasons for gathering them that are dependent on my first impression of the individuals. I most commonly say they are going to be sold to a friend who uses them for arts and craft, sometimes I will say they can be eaten, but that they have to be prepared a certain way or else they will be poisonous, and once I even claimed I was a biology student at the local university collecting them for study. When doing these runs into other peoples yards I would recommend that one dress as non-threatening as possible. If you do happen to have a run in with a resident be as friendly as possible and think fast about what to tell them. And if you get engaged in conversation about the mushrooms ask them what they know about them, you may be able to find out about their own cultural understanding of the Amanita muscaria.
Eventually you will find that the mushrooms will continue growing under a certain stand of trees for the season and you can return there once or twice a week. Interestingly I have found many Amanita muscaria growing in one spot one season, but upon my return the next they have not returned. Therefore I recommend that you allow the mushrooms to sporinate before harvesting and that you also leave a few to follow their normal cycle of birth and return to the earth. One year I collected so many from the local golf course that the next year was almost devoid of them. You should have seen me walking around with a bag collecting mushrooms as golfers, who often mistook the unopened caps for their golf balls, looked on in wonderment.
Once you get near the mushrooms sit among them for a few minutes if possible, they are a wonderful sight to behold and have a very mysterious resonance about them. Admire them for a little bit before they become sacrificial victims. Most of the time you will find the mushrooms in their many different stages of growth, from just raising their round heads above the ground to total decomposition. The ones you really want to look for are those that are dried on the stalk as these are said, by some contemporary commentators and the native Siberians, to be the most potent in regards to their effects. These are also the most difficult specimens to find simply because the weather conditions have to be in such a state to allow the mushroom to dry without rotting. The second most desirable state to collect is those that are in the process of sporination. These can be recognized by their nearly horizontal parasol, upturning parasol, or tears in the striations along the edge of the cap. The least desirable specimens are those which some might consider the most desirable. They are the ones that are still in the process of expanding and are not in sporination, but which are the most divine looking in shape and color. If at all possible leave these behind and come back in a day or two to see if they are still around. It is said that the smaller ones are the most potent as well, but remember, get them after their sporination. When removing the Amanita muscaria I recommend first giving the cap a few good taps to knock out spores for future harvests and then cutting off the cap at the uppermost part of the stem. If in sporination the stem should be ripe with fallen spores that will eventually make their way back into the ground.
The most common enemies to the Amanita muscaria are gnat larvae, snails, squirrels, deer, lawn mowers, and possibly polluted rain. Gnat larvae are probably the worst enemies, drilling up from the stem and into the cap, often devouring the gills and inner meat while avoiding the immediate cap, possibly due to its chemical makeup. Snails don't do much damage, but will often leave a hole or two through the stem and cap as well as some dried slime. Squirrels will usually just take a bit or two, leaving a majority of the cap, but a deer will bite the whole cap off, leaving just a stem poking out of the ground. The worst fate is to return a day or two later after waiting for full sporination to find the mushrooms ground up by a mower or trampled underfoot by the neighborhood children. The last possible enemy to Amanita muscaria growth would appear to be acidified rain. From my own experience I've noticed that Amanita muscaria populations are almost non-existent in the Eastern suburbs of our largest metropolitan area, while to the West they grow in incredible abundance. My only explanation is that the top soil in the East has become polluted by the airborne particles carried out of the city and dropped by rain in the Eastern suburbs, thereby inhibiting the production of mycelia.
Preparation and Ingestion
The most important aspect of Amanita muscaria preparation lies in the drying and/or of heating of the mushroom. What these two processes do is convert the less powerful Ibotenic acid into the highly psychopharacologically chemical muscimol through decarboxylation. If this is not done then the potency as an inebrient is lessened. There are a number of ways to do this.
The fresh mushroom can be roasted over an open flame via the Wasson technique discovered by a friend of his in Japan who roasted the mushroom over an open fire and then consumed it with euphoric effects. One technique that I have tried was over a fire as well, but was a little different. I had taken the unripened parasol caps and placed them upside down on a gas grill set on low. As the mushroom heated up liquid condensed in the cup and was drunk. This produced a strong sense of euphoria in which I could not help but dance around and sing to myself (both very common reports by Siberians of Amanita muscaria intoxication). A very pleasurable experience from a total of about 2 tablespoons of the liquid. One later thought was to take these same mushrooms after collecting the condensed liquid and to press out the remaining juices, but instead I swallowed them in large pieces and retched horribly. I've also noticed that as I've oven dried my Amanita muscaria's a liquid would drain out of the mushrooms onto the cooking sheet. This liquid might be easily collected by taking the cooking sheet and attaching a screen of some sort a few centimeters above it and allow the liquid to drip into the sheet and dry for later removal. But I believe a dehydrator is the best at keeping their shape and color. One might even want to try expressing the juices from raw or rehydrated mushrooms and then heating the remaining liquid. This liquid may also be dehydrated and gel-capped.
If you have dried your mushrooms then one can simply eat them or else do the hot water method of preparation by bringing some water to the near simmer point, but not quite rolling point, at about 190 degrees, and add the ground mushrooms. Let this cook in the water for about a half hour to an hour and them consume, water, ground mushrooms and all. For those of you who can't stand the taste of dried mushrooms or the tea (like myself who for some strange reason has the gag reflex the minute I try to swallow, and sometimes when I just smell) the gel-cap method may work best. Simply take the dried mushrooms, grind them up, and stuff into gel-caps. One might also take the tea, dehydrate it, and then gel-cap. I have never tried the tea method, but it may be possible that this method increases the muscimol levels even above drying, so this type of gel-cap method might be worth a try. Since the majority of the alkaloids reside within the caps skin it might also be worth a try either to peal off the skin from fresh mushrooms and dry, or else remove the gills from dried specimens, to reduce the amount needing to be consumed.
A few other less common methods may be worth mentioning, the first is the possibility that the juice of the mushroom could be absorbed through the skin. This method is described by Adrian Morgan in the wonderful and beautiful book Toads and Toadstools, and is the only place I've ever heard of such an avenue of ingestion. This method might work best with dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO), a aprotic solvent. Another interesting method would be by enema or direct insertion of the mushroom into the vagina, the second method certainly not being condoned as it might easily produce infection, or worse. Clark Heinrich, in his excellent book Strange Fruit, makes suggestions that in Tantric texts and art there exists evidence pointing towards these routes of administration in highly symbolic rituals. Smoking the mushroom has also proven to produce mild effects. Since the skin contains the highest concentrations of muscimol it can be peeled off fresh mushrooms and dried or else the gills and stem can be discarded from dried specimens. I personally would be interested in seeing the effects of smoked concentrated extract or pure muscimol.
The last method I would like to mention is the most interesting and may produce the strongest effects. This is to combine any of the above methods with Peganum harmala seeds or extract to produce monoamine oxidase inhibition. I have never tried this method myself but am aware of one such experimentation which produced very strong effects. I've been awaiting a report from this acquaintance, but have yet to receive it. I first heard of this technique from an employee of an occult bookstore and herbal center which sells many uncontrolled entheogens. This employee, and practitioner of Wiccan magic, stated that if Peganum harmala is used with Amanita muscaria the Amanita muscaria dosage could be cut in half. I first thought she was confusing her mushrooms, as a dosage of Psilocybin mushrooms can be halved when taken with P. harmala. I mentioned this to her, and to my surprise she stated that she has tried the Amanita muscaria/P. harmala combination. I later talked with the owner of the store who stated that there is a history of this combination. I personally am unaware of this type of usage in the entheogen community, but it's possible that it exists in Wiccan practices. Upon my mentioning of this combination on the old Visionary Plant List I received a response from JRH who had mentioned this to J. Ott as a way to clear up the linguistic controversy of Wasson's and Flattery's opposing theories. JRH stated that Ott didn't have anything to say about this possibility.
Due to environmental factors and the possibility that the time of harvesting (see Amanita muscaria myths below) effects the alkaloid level and composition of each mushroom it is important to make an attempt to equalize the alkaloid content of the collection you have. This can be done by grinding up all the Amanita muscaria's you have into a powder or else dicing them into small chunks and thoroughly mixing together. The powder is best used in the tea or gel cap method, while the diced mushrooms are good for eating dry or cooking with. If you have whole fresh mushrooms to be heated or dried caps each individual should get an equal portion of each mushroom so that everyone gets exactly the same amount and concentration of alkaloids. By this you can possibly avoid differences in effects among the individual participants.
A couple interesting myths have surrounded these mushrooms for a number or years of which I have difficulty accepting due to their lack of controlled scientific study. The first of these is that North American specimens lack the potency levels of Eurasian specimens. Personally I don't see how a scientific control group could be produced with a mushroom that is reputed to contain highly variable alkaloid contents from mushroom to mushroom. Now if controlled experiments could be done in a lab environment with North American and Eurasian specimens grown in the same substrate and with identical environmental conditions and then tested for alkaloid concentrations the results might be more reliable. (Hell, it could be the tree which define the mushrooms alkaloids.) But until this is possible I will accept it as a drug enforcement lie produced to discourage experimentation. Also, don't forget that mushrooms are not plants that have difficulty disseminating throughout the world. The spores are easily transported through the air by wind currents, so I doubt there is any distinctions between North American and Eurasian Amanita muscaria. Just a thought.
A second rumor is that Amanita muscaria collected in the beginning of the season are more potent, and less toxic to the system, than those collected towards the end of the season. I personally have not done any experimentation in this area, but I do believe that further scientific study is needed to verify this information. From what I understand this is myth has some support in the ethnobotanical lore of Siberian tribes.
Once you are ready to explore the realms of Amanita muscaria intoxication it is recommended that you start by equalizing the strength of the mushrooms by the above mentioned methods. A low dose trial is always in order to test the power of the material you have and to examine how ones body reacts to this particular collection of mushrooms. I believe 5 grams or less is a good starting point which can be gradually increased according to ones desires. Usually the first effects can be felt within the first half hour and vary according to each individuals constitution, but any augmentation of dosage should not be consumed until the effects are in full swing, about 2 hours after ingestion.
The Amanita muscaria Intoxication
The Amanita muscaria intoxication can be quite variable, from nausea, sweating, and salivation produced from a high level of muscarine in the mushroom, to the more desirous effects of euphoria, elevated mood, auditory and visual hallucinations, and increased strength and stamina produced by the muscimol, or the best of all, to feel the desire to dance and sing. But it must be understood that within this mushroom is heaven and hell. While with one experiment you can find bliss, within the next you may find terror. In one you may feel power and strength and in the next find the deepest somnambulance. This mushroom makes no guarantees, and I believe that it is just such a lack of predictability that has instilled this mushroom with such awe and mystery through Old and New World alike. These are not organisms that you want to carelessly ingest, therefore I suggest that someone care and supervise for you. And unless they are truly sick in body I would attempt to refrain from calling an ambulance, the sickness will pass in time. And remember to first identify Amanita muscaria from its more deadly relatives, A. phalloides, A. ocreata, A. virosa, and A. verna, before gathering on your own. Each of these potentially deadly species can be differentiated from Amanita muscaria by their saclike volva. If you have any doubt whatsoever about the mushroom you have then discard it.
Amanita muscaria cultivation in a lab environment has always been an impossibility due to the symbiotic mycorrhizal relationship of this mushroom to its host trees. But if one has the necessary host trees in their area, and resides in the proper temperate zone or elevation, try and simply take a few dried or fresh caps that are in sporination (fully flattened or upturning with longitudinal tears along the striations), crush them up thoroughly, and mix the crushings into the top soil. See if it will take. If one doesn't want to make the initial investment of the caps simply chop up the stems from sporinating specimens, which will naturally have collected some of the falling spores, and mix with the soil. Clark Heinrich states that he simply buries the stems under the proper host tree for cultivation, but then again he probably lives the the perfect environment. I would recommend that this be done in the Fall soon after the fruiting season or in early Spring so that the spores can receive their proper life cycle. My own observations (I've yet to actually learn this) of Amanita muscaria growth suggest that mycelia growth takes place primarily throughout the Spring and Summer months and is highly dependent on rain and soil moisture preceding the Fall fruiting. If the season is dry just water your mushroom garden every few days. A host tree in a large container that can be left outdoors year round may be a candidate for cultivation if one is in the right zone.
I can't help but reiterate to the reader that just because some modern people cannot seem to consistently feel the same effects from Amanita muscaria as is postulated the ancients did in no way should lessen the theory of Amanita muscaria being the divine Soma of the 4000 year old Rigveda and one of the world oldest religious tools. As is well know shamanism didn't just mean kicking back after the ingestion of an entheogen, the way which many moderns work with entheogens. Instead archaic man was very proficient in many techniques to alter their state of awareness, and these no doubt where used in combination with the mushroom, thereby altering the purely psychopharmacological effects of the mushrooms alkaloids. Modern man is also much more familiar with strong synthetic chemical hallucinogens. In our age of LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT we can't help but feel that anything less than the experiences these produce could be considered powerful. But to the ancient Siberians, whose familiarity with stronger entheogens was nonexistent, an Amanita muscaria experience, which can induce both heaven or hell, would certainly take on Godly proportions. Might it even be possible that as the earliest waves of archaic man past over the present day Americas they brought with them their Amanita muscaria traditions, nesting in a few spots such as the Pacific Northwest, Canada, the Great Lakes region, Mexico, and Guatemala, and that some sought out new allies in Psilocybe species, Yage, and Ebena. Our reference for a Godly entheogenic experience has changed from that of archaic mankind. Many believe this mushroom lacks entheogenic value, but history has shown that it has long been valued by mankind, throughout Europe, Siberia, and in the Americas. I think it is unwise to compare our western philosophical understanding of Amanita muscaria to that of the religio-magical experiences of the ancients. This is a powerful mushroom that deserves our respect and attention for possibly being the ancient source for that which makes us human.