Sep 05 2018

Sign of Autumn: Look out for the first fly agaric

The first fly agaric mushroom of the year is a sure sign that the seasons are changing. Find out more about this iconic fairy tale toadstool and the challenges it faces.

The importance of fly agaric

Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) is a fungus. Fly agaric belongs to a particular group of fungi known as mycorrhizal fungi. They have an underground network of microscopic fungal threads called hyphae which make up the majority of the fungus. Their hyphae are associated with the roots of birch and other trees in woods, on heathland and elsewhere. They enhance the ability of trees to take up essential nutrients and water. They also help to protect trees against disease.

As well as supporting tree health, the fungus supports the whole ecosystem by recycling nutrients trapped in dead leaves and other organic matter. The hyphae release enzymes and then absorb nutrients from their surroundings. Of course, we rarely get to see these threads unless we go digging about looking for them with a microscope.

The fruiting body, or mushroom, is the part that we normally see above ground in autumn. The mushroom emerging is equivalent to a flower opening – the fungi releases spores from the gills of the mushroom to reproduce. This is often happens at the onset of damp weather in autumn.

Cultural significance

Fly agaric is associated with folklore and spirituality, most likely because of its hallucinogenic properties when ingested

It may have been used in a sacred and hallucinogenic ritual drink called Soma in India and Iran for over 4,000 years. The Vedas text is written in Sanskrit, it describes how drinking Soma makes a person strong and immortal. Soma is said to be relished by Hindu Gods as well.

In literature, the famous story of Alice in Wonderland unfolds as she follows a white rabbit down a rabbit hole and meets a caterpillar sitting on a mushroom. He advises her to eat it, ‘one side will make you grow taller, the other side will make you grow shorter’. Alice takes a piece from both sides and proceeds to grow and shrink her way through her meetings with the duchess and the march hare before reaching the hidden garden.

This popularity continues in modern culture. It has been shown in TV series like the Smurfs and in the video game super Mario Bros.

WARNING: Fly agaric is poisonous and infamous for its psychoactive and hallucinogenic properties.

Threats to fungi

A recent study* has found that higher levels of pollution from fertilisers in our woodland soils are having a negative impact on mycorrhizal fungi, such as fly agaric. This is having a knock on effect on trees across Europe, causing discoloured or missing leaves which indicate tree malnutrition.

Over a 10 year period, the researchers studied 40,000 roots from 13,000 soil samples at 137 forest sites in 20 European countries, including the UK. They found that local air and soil quality have a great impact on the number of fungal threads found underground. This shows that fungi are sensitive to pollution. The presence of the tree species they tend to associate with also plays a part in the amount of hyphae found in the soil.

* Environment and host as large-scale controls of ectomycorrhizal fungi, van der Linde et al, 2018, Nature.

How can you help this species?

This well-known fungus may be vulnerable to modern threats such as climate change, habitat loss and pollution.

As this is the only fungus that we record on Nature’s Calendar, we need more nature lovers to keep their eyes peeled for this distinctive species. Let us know when you spot the first one of the year.

Our data are used by scientists and government to understand the impacts of weather and climate change on UK wildlife. The more data we have the accurate our dataset is.

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