Fly agaric's Christmas connections

Ross Bentley
Est. Reading: 3 minutes

Out for a walk on one of those lovely, sunny autumn days of October before the rains of November arrived.

Away from the pettiness of politics, putting the world of human concerns behind me, I headed across Sudbury’s water meadows and towards Long Melford in search of toadstools and wild mushrooms. For this is the season of fungi.

I had in mind one mushroom in particular, the fly agaric – our most recognised species of wild fungi. Its iconic red and white cap is depicted often in popular culture – the Smurfs live in a fly agaric mushroom; the Super Mario video game featured a racing driver called Toad who wore a fly agaric helmet; the mushroom that Alice in Wonderland consumed, making her bigger or smaller, is based on the fly agaric.

The name also gives the fungus an air of mystery. The moniker can be traced back to olden times when it was used as an insecticide. Apparently, the poisonous mushroom was broken up and sprinkled into a bowl of milk where its scent would attract and kill flies around the home.

Under the silver birch

I had read before setting off that fly agarics can be found most often near birch trees or pines and spruces between late summer and early winter.

Like most fungi, the parts we see are just the fruiting bodies, or mushrooms, which produce spores for reproduction. These grow up from where most of the fungal activity takes place - an underground network of tiny filaments called hyphae, which together form a structure known as the mycelium. The mycelium of fly agaric forms a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with the trees around it, wrapping around the roots and supplying them with nutrients taken from the soil. In return, the fungus receives sugars produced by the trees.

I headed towards two stands of silver birch trees I know on the Valley Trail more in hope than anticipation, but it was one of those rare times when nature delivers on request. The light green and yellow leaves of the birch hung down in the autumn sun, glimmering like a gown of gold from a Klimt painting. Scattered around the foot of the trunk were six fly agaric mushrooms – the smaller ones were round and bright red with white spots; others were taller with their burnt orange-coloured cap stretched horizontal like a parasol.

What a find! And what beautiful specimens. Only nature can give you this type of buzz. The area took on a magical feel; the bright red like nothing else found on the leaf-strewn floor of the copse.

Christmas connections

Red is associated with danger and in the case of the fly agaric it warns of a fungus that is classified as poisonous and one to leave alone. However, this has not stopped people digesting the mushroom down the ages, preparing it in complicated and unusual ways, so they can enjoy its hallucinatory properties.

Some have suggested the ancient Indian drink Soma, which was used in religious ceremonies, was derived from fly agaric. The reindeer herders of Siberia and Lapland are also said to have been frequent users of fly agaric, which grows commonly in these regions.

The reindeers would graze the mushrooms before the herders collected and drank their urine – cleaned of poisonous toxins but still retaining hallucinogenic chemicals. It is said that many of our Christmas myths are derived from this time. For intoxicated onlookers, the jumping and gambolling reindeers, themselves high on fly agaric, may have seemed like they were flying – just as Rudolph and his friends are said to have done.

There is evidence that the magic men and spiritual leaders of the time, known as shamans, used fly agarics in their ceremonies and I have read one article that suggests they would sometimes enter the communal hall via the chimney as part of the proceedings.

What's more, some writers point to the red and white of Santa Claus’ outfit – just like fly agaric’s cap – as a further sign that the mushroom has Christmas connections. This all harks back to distant time - these days a glass of sherry with a mince pie is as much as Father Christmas imbibes.  

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