Genus Amanita, Subsection Amanita
Amanita muscaria and its American versions; A. persicina, A. regalis
- History (cultural)
- History (taxonomic)
- The American muscaria
- A. persicina
- A. regalis
- Further Reading
Amanita muscaria is an iconic mushroom featuring a red cap with white spots. It has been depicted in so many works of art (especially for children) that many people don’t realize it actually exists in nature.
This illustration by Giacomo Bresadola shows the diagnostic features for the traditional European Amanita muscaria: the red cap with white flakes of universal veil; the skirt-like white ring on the stalk; the stack of cog-wheel-like rings at the base of the stalk; and the striations that form at the edge of the cap.
These characteristic features of muscaria have been established for hundreds of years. Here we see them illustrated in Micheli’s Nova plantarum genera of 1729. Micheli seems to have felt that the jagged rings were especially important, so he drew them larger than life, and running farther up the stem. They are indeed important in distinguishing the species most closely related to Amanita muscaria from their neighbors.
Besides occurring throughout Europe, the original Amanita muscaria has what Rod Tulloss calls a circum-polar distribution: Northern Scandinavia and Asia through Siberia — and southwestern Alaska through northern Washington State in North America. In the rest of North America, we have a few closely related species that look almost exactly like it.
The natural range of Amanita muscaria is in the northern hemisphere, where it commonly occurs mycorrhizally with conifers (especially pines) and birch. Where pines hosting muscaria have been introduced in the southern hemisphere — in Tanzania, Argentina, Australia, for example — it has come along with them, and there it has also formed mycorrhizal relationships with local eucalyptus.
Muscaria is also tied up in other European cultural practices – for instance Santa Claus, who is also colored red and white, and lives in the distant north. Muscaria has long been associated with good luck in Europe, and is featured on many New Year’s postcards along with other traditional good luck symbols like four-leafed clovers and horseshoes.
Amanita muscaria is the type species of the genus Amanita, which means that any Amanita is an Amanita inasmuch as it resembles muscaria. This also means that the section and subsection of the genus Amanita that contain muscaria are also called muscaria.
Forms new species quickly when isolated
Amanita muscaria seems to be inclined to speciate quickly if isolated. There are two closely-related speces — Amanita gioiosa and A. heterochroma — known only from the island of Sardinia. And the Geml & Tulloss study found three unique versions (as yet unnamed) on the island of Santa Cruz, off southern California. More may well be uncovered with the mycological exploration of new isolated locales.
Formidable taxonomic confusion over North American species
Note: if you have a low tolerance for your eye-crossing accounts of mushroom taxonomy, you may want to just skip ahead to the short take on this.
The status of the European muscaria is clear, but over here in North America things get much more confusing. Many, many color forms of mushrooms very similar to A. muscaria occur in North America. As I mentioned on the Overview tab, the original Amanita muscaria occurs in North America in southeastern Alaska through British Columbia and northern Washington state. The default species for the rest of western North America has the name flavivolvata. The original idea of its distinction from muscaria was that its universal veil material starts out yellow (“flavi” = yellow) and only fades to white in the sun. However, that is a dubious distinction since the original Amanita muscaria also sometimes has a yellow universal veil, as does the closely-related Amanita persicina.
In the east, the default name for the closest muscaria lookalike is currently Amanita muscaria var. guessowii. It used to be called Amanita muscaria var. formosa, but that has been deprecated as being a European name. The name formosa actually comes from Persoon, the originator of the genus Amanita, in 1800; so the existence of yellow color forms of muscaria has been known pretty much from the original creation of the genus.
In any case, Peck brought the name formosa over in 1880, to use for our northeastern version of muscaria, which is often yellow. However, in the 1920s a Canadian mycologist named Hans Güssow published an account and photo of our yellow, northeastern muscarioid mushroom; so when Rudolf Veselý published “A Critical Revision of the Amanitas of Europe” in 1933, he suggested that the yellow muscarioid of northeastern North America in Güssow’s article was in fact different from the European one, and he attached Güssow’s name to it. This is currently the best name we have for the eastern muscarioid mushrooms that we find.
The short take
This taxonomic mess is fairly involved and confusing, even by the demanding standards of professional mycology; but luckily, most of it may be just going away. The latest DNA studies (Geml, Tulloss, et al.) have confirmed that we have the original Eurasian muscaria in the extreme NW of North America; and that we have a different species, Amanita persicina, in (mostly) the southeastern US. The rest of them are kind of a jumble, and it’s starting to look like the default eastern and western species (the subjects of the elaborate discussion above) may be the same thing.This view seems especially reasonable in view of DNA research confirming that the European color variants of muscaria (yellow cap, yellow universal veil material, etc) are all the same genetically.
The other nice thing about the default eastern and western species being the same is that they may also both be the same thing as a white form of “muscaria” that was named by George Atkinson in 1918 as Amanita chrysoblema. If this research (which is ongoing) holds up, all these flavivolvata/guesowii/formosa names will just go away and become chrysoblema, and we won’t have to rack our brains trying to figure out the meaning of the color variations in what we find, because they won’t have any — except to be pretty.
In view of this, here I’m going to avoid the various scientific names in current use and just call it “the American ‘muscaria.’” The potentially appropriate provisional name amerimuscaria has been used, and I have a hard time resisting the name pseudomuscaria; but I think it’s best to stay away from the scientific-style terminology here until the above gets sorted out.
The search for the white
If you live in eastern North America, you can help resolve this confusion! József Geml and Rod Tulloss are trying to get enough specimens of the white American ‘muscaria’ to have a decent sample size for their DNA analysis. They are trying to find more, but they turn up only a couple times a year. If you find one, send it in! – with a photo that shows that it was all white. Rod writes
The photo at the right shows what’s going on with cutting a mature specimen in half: the color from the cap of a mushroom will sometimes wash out in the rain or be bleached by the sun (or both!). But the cap pigment also usually colors the flesh immediately underneath the skin, so if this had been white on top, the yellow flesh would show that it started out yellow.
The collections should be such that (a) there is a white button photographed with the collection or (b) when a more mature cap is cut in half, there is no yellow visible in or below the skin of the cap (indicating a washed out guessowii).
Collections should be dried (see directions here) and mailed to Rod. You can contact Rod via the contact page at his website: http://www.amanitaceae.org/?Contact%20us or me via the contact page for Mushroom the Journal to get his address.
The American muscaria
In eastern North America, our version of the American muscaria varies in color from red to yellow, often in the same group.
In the Pacific Northwest, muscaria is often small and distinctly orange even before opening up — I have scratched the universal veil off buttons that were completely covered with it and found them bright orange underneath.
But the muscarioids in the PNW can exhibit the full range of possible muscaria colors just as well as those in the east:
Here is the classic flavivolvata color combination: a red cap with yellow universal veil flakes
The various versions of American muscaria all fade in sunlight, until finally they are completely yellow, with only the slightest hint of orange in the center.
The classic concept of Amanita persicina is that it is a color variant of A. muscaria that has a peach-colored cap. However, as I hope you’ve picked up from the taxonomy tab and the tab on American muscaria, simple cap color isn’t a good way to tell these muscarioids apart. That said, persicina is pretty much the only member of the bunch to show this sort of solid peach color:
Note, however, that if you get a young enough button, you may be able to see rings of spikes in the universal veil material at the base of the stalk, spikes that would have ended up as cogwheel-style rings at the base of the stalk.
Amanita persicina is not a well-documented species. For instance, in each of the photos above, taken by different people in different places, the universal veil seems to have both a yellow and a white layer. But this issue doesn’t seem to have been addressed in treatments of the species. Likewise, this species has a reputation for occurring in the southeast; but searching for photos for these pages, I came upon photos of “eastern muscaria” from all over the east that exhibit the weak basal rings of A. persicina. Awareness of this species is growing, leading to it being to being recorded more and more outside its traditional southeastern range.
Note that the cap color for this mushroom does not have to be peach! It can be the deep red (and have the large size) of the classic muscaria:
It can also exhibit the red-to-yellow shading that we have seen in the “regular” American muscaria:
No matter what the cap color, you have to check the base of the stalk to see whether it has the soft, shapeless rings typical of A. persicina or the sharp, cogwheel ones of our American muscaria.
Amanita regalis is another closely related species. It can be thought of as a dark brown, more toxic muscaria.
A. regalis is a cold-weather mushroom, occurring in the north or on mountains, in association with spruce. A. muscaria also occurs throughout the range of A. regalis; but the range of A. regalis does not extend to the more temperate locations where A. muscaria occurs. Also, unlike A. muscaria, A. regalis hasn’t shown up in new locations with transplanted trees.
As you can see, it also has the stacks of cogwheel-like rings at the base of the stalk.
On the edibility of Amanita muscaria:
The classic Rubel/Arora paper advocating the eating of muscaria
and its rebuttal:
Further Reflections on Amanita muscaria as an Edible Species
Amanita muscaria and shamanism in Siberia
Gary Lincoff narrates a visit to Kamchatka, to explore the shamanistic use of Amanita muscaria
The latest scooop on muscarioid taxonomy in North America
József Geml, Rodham Tulloss et al.’s 2008 roundup of North American genetic information