Further Reflections on Amanita muscaria as an Edible Species

by Debbie Viess

Over twenty five years ago, a tiny perfect grisette seduced me into the world of mushrooms. Barely three inches tall, it glowed pearly gray and grew from the middle of my favorite Bay Area hiking trail. The sight of it drew me to my knees. It was too beautiful to disturb, so I sketched it on a bank deposit slip, the only scrap of paper that I had with me. I carried that paper in my wallet for years and eventually identified it as a grisette, a member of the Amanita vaginata group, one of the many edible amanita species found here in California.
The hook was set, and amanitas in the wild continued to intrigue me. I obsessively read mushroom field guides, paying particular attention to the amanitas. A desire to eat what I had tentatively identified as a “Coccora” (Amanita calyptroderma), a locally popular edible amanita, coupled with a strong sense of self-preservation, caused me to join a local mycological society and begin my mushroom studies in earnest.
Since then, I have become a proponent of the safe and mindful collection and consumption of various edible California amanita species, as well as a mushroom poison identifier and mushroom educator, and I continue to have an abiding passion for all of the members of the genus Amanita. It was therefore with great interest that I first learned of the paper discussing Amanita muscaria and its use as food by William Rubel and David Arora, in the October 2008 special mushroom issue of the Journal of Economic Botany.
For as long as I have known him, David Arora has recounted the story of the modern day treatment of muscaria as an edible species in the Nagano Prefecture of Japan. Along with many others who attended his lectures and forays, I was fascinated by the concept. I was also aware of the many instances of serious muscaria poisonings that have occurred both through the ages and in modern times, so I was curious how their argument in the Economic Botany paper would proceed.
The title of the article was “A Study of Cultural Bias in Field Guide Determinations of Mushroom Edibility Using the Iconic Mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as an Example.” The authors start by noting that there is a broad scientific acceptance that muscaria toxins are water soluble, and that there are a few isolated practices of people around the world detoxifying and eating Amanita muscaria. From this they conclude that somehow “cultural bias” causes North American field guide authors to continue to list muscaria as a poisonous rather than edible species (Rubel, Arora, 2008).
But is this really a case of “cultural bias,” or is it just good, common sense?
The basic hypothesis of field guide authors’ mushroom edibility bias is sound. Any mushroom book that deals with edibility preferences is subject to the whims of its author: their culinary experience, personal judgment, and prevailing opinions all help to determine poisonous and edible designations. Since no one wants to recommend a mushroom that might be harmful to others, it is in everyone’s best interest for field guide authors to err on the side of caution, even if you might be aware of exceptions to the rule.
As I read Rubel’s arguments and selected quotes in his muscaria paper, my uneasiness grew. His several attempts to redefine the word “poisonous” so that it didn’t apply to muscaria were disturbing. His suggestion that future mushroom book authors should list muscaria as an edible species, and that it would be perfectly unremarkable to do so, was also troubling. Do we really want to encourage folks to use less caution about known poisonous species, even if, as mycophagists of long standing, we may know of ways to circumvent these poisons? And finally, I wasn’t buying the premise that muscaria was commonly accepted as a perfectly safe edible species anywhere in the world.
Amanita muscaria is one of the most beautiful and eye-catching mushrooms found anywhere. Although muscaria is a seriously toxic mushroom, its most abundant toxins – ibotenic acid and its decarboxylation by-product muscimol – are water soluble, and can be leached from the mushroom flesh through careful and prolonged boiling.
Let us note in passing that this method of preparation of course does not work for the deadly, amatoxin-containing, world-spanning amanitas collectively called “Death Caps” and “Destroying Angels.” The highly stable and supremely toxic amatoxin molecule is impervious to heat, cold, or acid bath. Amatoxins cannot be removed from mushroom flesh through par-boiling or any other sort of heat or cooking process. Certainly, no one would want to have novice amanita mycophagists generalizing the muscaria parboiling detoxification process to these sorts of unequivocally deadly, albeit also delicious tasting, amanita species.
As for muscaria, it is true that very small numbers of people around the world have indeed discovered that it can be made edible through careful and sometimes elaborate preparation; but it is also imperative to remember to throw out the water into which the toxins were leached. One American couple who forgot to do so became seriously intoxicated, to the point of damaging both themselves and their household (Beug, 2010)!

Field Guide Bias Si! Muscaria as a Safe Edible Species No!

On these basic points (water soluble toxins in muscaria, field guide bias) I think that we can all agree. But rather than going on to demonstrate how most field guide authors show bias in all of their edibles’ designations, the Rubel/Arora paper chose to present an elaborate justification for the treatment of muscaria as a perfectly safe edible species. The authors based this hypothesis upon the evidence that they selected, but I will show that this evidence is incomplete and therefore insufficient for declaring muscaria to be a perfectly safe edible species.
As an intellectual exercise, digging through dusty tomes to find a few scattered references to folks who ate muscaria as food in the course of history can make interesting reading. Conjecture can be strengthened by selective examples to support a hypothesis. However, it is difficult to prove a hypothesis beyond the shadow of doubt through the fog of centuries. What becomes troubling is when this conjecture and conflation of anecdotal evidence gets stamped with the imprimatur of someone of David Arora’s stature, a man to whom many look for answers to mycological questions, especially in terms of mushroom edibility.
The authors’ central hypothesis of the purported safe edibility of Amanita muscaria soon left the relative obscurity of subscribers to Economic Botany, and traveled to the boundless territory of the Internet, with links to the paper on both Rubel’s and Arora’s websites, in addition to many other places online, such as Wikipedia, Springerlink.com, Ingentaconnect.com, Discoverlife.org, Tititudorancea.org, etc.. Now the paper, with what I believe to be major misconceptions, was being referenced by a wide variety of mushroom enthusiasts worldwide as “common knowledge,” and a recipe for the “safe” preparation of muscaria was freely shared.

“Edible” Amanita muscaria: A Recipe for Disaster?

As public educators, on a topic that is mostly unknown here in North America, I believe that we must consider the impact of our words. Although many experienced mushroomers are aware of the fact that it is possible to remove the toxins from Amanita muscaria, it is naïve at best to assume that people will always carefully follow a recipe, especially one that includes a potentially dangerous mushroom. Ironically enough, even the original muscaria detoxification recipe that Rubel and Arora provided in the Economic Botany article had important numerical conversion errors, listing 250 gm. of muscaria as the equivalent of 4 ounces. In the online version of this paper, linked to from his website, Arora changed the amount of muscaria in the recipe to the correct weight of 110 gm. (Arora, 2009).
Yet even a perfectly reasonable recipe can have unreasonable translation into a real-time meal. If many folks have difficulties following any recipe, why start with a troublesome and sometimes even dangerous ingredient? I know of at least four folks who had unpleasant experiences after attempting to detoxify muscaria at home. One told me of her experiences directly, another wrote it up in great and glorious detail online (Konecney, 2009), and two others published their story in Mushroom, the Journal of Wild Mushrooming (Millman, Haff, 2004). Even the recent book Mycophilia by Eugenia Bone describes a less than ideal experience (waking up in a chair not remembering anything) after eating muscaria as an “edible” species, with two well known Western amateur mycologists who brought the muscaria to her vacation home in Colorado (Bone, 2011). Do you think they got the recipe wrong, too, or perhaps didn’t care if it ended with the diners in a muscaria dream state?
What seems to be a fairly obvious factor that the authors failed to consider was this: the vast majority of folks who would even want to try muscaria as an edible are undoubtedly already primed for eating muscaria as an entheogen (in layperson’s terms: to get high). In other words, they would have even less reason to want to follow exactly the elaborate procedures necessary to make this mushroom wholly non-toxic. For these “psychonauts,” a nice, neuro-toxic poisoning could be looked upon as a bonus. Pity those poor folks who just want a nice mushroom meal for their families, though, and not a trip to the emergency room. Wouldn’t a bit of warning be in order for them?

Redefining Poisonous to Exempt Muscaria

According to Rubel, one shouldn’t even consider muscaria to be poisonous, at least in the strict sense. After all, a small piece won’t kill you (Rubel, Arora, 2008). But in fact, although seldom fatal (its deadly designation in many older field guides does indeed seem like “overkill” to most) muscaria can certainly be dangerously toxic.
Ibotenic acid-containing mushrooms (Amanita pantherina and A. muscaria and their close relatives) are a major cause of serious mushroom poisonings, especially in the Pacific Northwest, often resulting in hospitalizations (Benjamin, 1995; Beug, 2006; Spoerke et al, 1994). Usually, these poisonings are self-limiting. The folks who were poisoned, regardless of the reason the mushroom was eaten, have no wish to repeat the experience.

Recent North American Deaths Linked to Amanita Muscaria Ingestions

Sometimes the unforeseen results of eating muscaria are more serious than “merely” an unpleasant poisoning and hospital stay. The National Poison Data System for 2004, established by the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), listed a fatal outcome for a young man who ate 6-10 freeze-dried muscaria caps (Watson, 2004). He was discovered in cardiac arrest, and died 10 days later from anoxic brain injury. Another fatal muscaria poisoning case from 2007, recounted in a NAMA Toxicology Committee Report in the 2009 issue of McIlvainea, tells of an otherwise healthy young man who died twelve hours after ingesting 6 or 7 muscaria caps. After falling into a muscaria-induced swoon the night before, he was found dead in bed the next morning. The medical examiner who autopsied the corpse labeled it death by mushroom poisoning, since he could find no other contributing cause of death (Beug, 2009), although since there were other drugs involved, the exact cause of death remained unclear (Beug, 2012).
Blithe assurances of the safe and unremarkable edibility of muscaria would be cold comfort indeed to the families of the two separate cases of young men who ate muscaria and then fell into comas. While in this helpless state, one froze to death while camping, and the other died after aspirating vomitus (Beug, 2006).
In a more recent case, recounted to me by Marilyn Shaw, toxicology expert and poison identifier for the Rocky Mountain Poison Control, a young man in Aurora, Colorado narrowly escaped death when he was discovered naked and unconscious, with a severely lowered body temperature and in cardiac arrest, after the recreational ingestion of muscaria (Shaw, 2012).
Who knows how many other incidental deaths after muscaria ingestion there may have been? Testing for muscimol levels is hardly part of a coroner’s normal toxicology panel (Benjamin, 2012).

Recent Muscaria Deaths in the Southern Hemisphere

Documented deaths from the ingestion of Amanita muscaria are not restricted to North America. Formerly found only in the Northern hemisphere, Amanita muscaria has been inadvertently introduced to the Southern hemisphere in Pinus tree farms, producing a novel, toxic species of red amanita in places where no ibotenic acid-containing amanitas have been found before. This has had tragic consequences in Tanzania, where locals had safely gathered a number of choice, edible amanita species for many generations, without a thought to careful identifications. Often only the amanita caps were gathered, leaving the bases buried. A muscaria cap in age, with its warts removed and with a striate margin, can closely resemble local edible species in Amanita section Caesarea.
While Finnish mycologists were in Tanzania describing some of these local, edible amanita species for science, they consulted on a muscaria poisoning case, where two women and a child were poisoned and in hospital. After reassuring doctors that the poisonings would resolve on their own, since that was indeed their experience with muscaria poisonings in Scandinavia, they were horrified to learn that one of the women died from her meal the next day. Upon further interviews with other Tanzanian locals gathering amanitas, they discovered even more recent muscaria deaths (Harkonen, 1994).

Our Most Famous North American Muscaria Fatality

If one is willing to go back a little over a hundred years ago, you discover the unfortunate death of Italian diplomat Count de Vecchj, who requested amanita mushrooms from the Virginia countryside for his breakfast, believing them to be local examples of Amanita caesarea. Unfortunately, the mushrooms that were brought to and consumed by the Count were not the choice, edible caesarea of Italy, but the toxic muscaria, and the Count ate a gluttonous meal of somewhere between a dozen and two dozen caps, which resulted in convulsions so great that he broke his hotel bed (Rose, 2006).
The Count, who prided himself upon his mushroom identification skills, died from his meal. Out of his death and its ensuing lurid and widespread publicity, sprang a renewed North American interest in mushroom societies, especially in the Northeast, to provide much needed public education about edible and poisonous wild mushrooms (Rose, 2006).
On the face of all of this evidence to the contrary, it is disingenuous at best to consider muscaria to not be a poisonous mushroom. But poisonous is an off-putting word, pleads Rubel, a fan of muscaria eating to be sure.

Evidence for Amanita muscaria as a Poisonous Mushroom

In his muscaria paper, Rubel states: “Listing A. muscaria as edible rather than poisonous is a completely unremarkable judgment in a culinary context.” Here is how Rubel describes the effects of muscaria ingestion on his website:

Amanita muscaria is not poisonous in the sense that it can kill you. It is poisonous in the sense that if not parboiled in plentiful water (the “toxins” are water soluble), then raw or undercooked mushrooms eaten (in moderation) will cause you to become inebriated and possible nauseous. (Rubel, 2011).

The above statement assumes that future muscaria eaters, perhaps lulled into complacency by assurances that muscaria isn’t really poisonous, will use moderation and carefully follow a recipe. But wouldn’t a stronger emphasis on its very real toxicity be a better way to get any future muscaria mycophagists to be cautious in its preparation and consumption? Or maybe reject the idea of eating muscaria as an edible species altogether?
Here’s what the Emergency Physicians Monthly website had to say about Amanita muscaria and the many ibotenic acid poisonings that they have collectively observed:

A toxic dose in adults is approximately 6 mg. muscimol or 60 mg. ibotenic acid—the amount found in one cap of Amanita muscaria. However, the amount and ratio of chemical compounds per mushroom varies widely from region to region and season to season. Spring and summer mushrooms have been reported to contain up to 10 times as much ibotenic acid and muscimol compared to autumn specimens. Toxic components are not distributed uniformly in the mushroom. Most of the muscimol and ibotenic are contained in the cap or pileus. A fatal dose has been calculated at approximately 15 caps.
Fly agarics are known for unpredictable clinical effects which can be highly variable between individuals exposed to similar doses. Symptoms typically appear after 30 to 90 minutes and peak within three hours. Certain effects can last for days, but the majority of cases completely recover within 12 to 24 hours. Unlike other toxic mushroom ingestions, vomiting is uncommon. Patients may exhibit ataxia, auditory and visual hallucinations (described as sliding vision and “the ability to see through walls”), as well as hysteria. Central nervous system depression, coma, myoclonic jerking, hyperkinetic behavior, and seizures have been described in larger doses. Retrograde amnesia and somnolence can result following recovery. (Erickson, 2010)

Whoa, that sounds rather more unpleasant than “inebriation” and “mild nausea,” doesn’t it?
Let’s take the informed opinion of another North American mycologist and toxicologist, Michael Beug, PhD. Beug fields poisoning calls in the Pacific Northwest, where muscimol poisonings account for the majority of all serious mushroom poisonings. He had also heard that some Russians living outside Moscow eat detoxified muscaria as an edible species (through the work of R. Gordon Wasson and later from Dr. Daniel Stuntz), but he doesn’t know how many do so, nor to what degree this is practiced. Here is what Beug had to say about eating Amanita muscaria:

Both Amanita muscaria and Amanita pantherina are large, showy, and delicious, though poisonous mushrooms (unless cooked by boiling them and then discarding the water, but if you don’t get rid of all the water, look out!). Though some people in Russia apparently parboil and eat Amanita muscaria, it is not a practice I recommend. Amanita muscaria and Amanita pantherina are frequently eaten intentionally by people seeking to get high and are also frequently eaten by mistake (believe it or not, often from people thinking they had an Agaricus). The “trip” from Amanita muscaria and Amanita pantherina is generally not pleasant and involves hospitals more predominately than hallucinations. (Beug, 2004)