Genus Amanita, Subsection Amanita

Amanita muscaria and its American versions; A. persicina, A. regalis

 

Amanita muscaria Illustration from Giacomo Bresadola's Iconographia mycologica (1927)

Amanita muscaria
Illustration from Giacomo Bresadola’s Iconographia mycologica (1927)

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.

Amanita muscaria Illustration from Pier Andrea Micheli's Nova plantarum genera

Amanita muscaria
Illustration from Pier Andrea Micheli’s Nova plantarum genera (1729)

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.

Amanita muscaria has a long history of use in Siberia in shamanistic practice, and in the rest of Europe and Russia as part of a fly-extermination system: bits of the mushroom are crushed and put in a saucer of milk. Flies are attracted to the chemicals evaporating from the milk and drink it; they are stupefied by other mushroom chemicals, fall into the milk, and drown. Both its scientific name muscaria (musca means “fly”) and many of its European common names (mukhomor in Russian) derive from this fly-killing practice.

New Year's elf with muscaria

New Year’s elf with many Amanita muscaria
Photo courtesy of Tjakko Stijve

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.

Type species

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 whale muscaria

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 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).

Amanita aprica, with pigment from the cap skin coloring the flesh underneath it. Photo by Tim Sage

Amanita aprica, with pigment from the cap skin coloring the flesh underneath it.
Photo by Tim Sage

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.
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.

Eastern muscaria

The American Amanita muscaria in the east.
Photo by Pam Kaminski

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.

Small orange PNW muscaria. Photo by David Orth

Small orange PNW muscaria
Photo by David Orth

But the muscarioids in the PNW can exhibit the full range of possible muscaria colors just as well as those in the east:

Pacific Northwest American muscaria, showing range of colors. Note the the button in front center has yellow universal veil flakes on the cap. Photo by Tim Sage

Pacific Northwest American muscaria, showing range of colors. Note the the button in front center has yellow universal veil flakes on the cap.
Photo by Tim Sage

Here is the classic flavivolvata color combination: a red cap with yellow universal veil flakes

The type concept for var. flavivolvata: a red cap with yellow universal veil material. Photo by Tim Sage

The type concept for var. flavivolvata: a red cap with yellow universal veil material.
Photo by Tim Sage

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.

Aged eastern muscaria. Photo by John Denk

Aged A. muscaria, fading away
Photo by John Denk

Amanita persicina

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:

Amanita persicina with its classic peach-colored cap. Photo by David Borland

Amanita persicina with its classic peach-colored cap
Photo by David Borland

But Rod Tulloss, citing Jenkins (the mid-20th-century Amanita expert), says that a much more reliable way to distinguish persicina from the more hegemonic American muscarioids is that persicina has a much more fragile universal veil, one that is more cottony and more easily pulled apart as the mushroom grows and stretches. So this mushroom doesn’t feature the jagged cogwheel-like rings around the base of the stem. Instead (as you can see above) the universal veil material that would have formed such rings gets stretched out and is much softer. Likewise, the flakes on the cap are flatter and more cottony. There are more definitive differences, of course, at the microscopic and DNA level; but if you’re just working with what you can see on your own, this is the way to go.

Amanita persicina, showing fragile yellow universal and partial veil material Photo by Erlon Bailey

Amanita persicina, showing fragile yellow universal and partial veil material
Photo by Erlon Bailey

The universal veil material may indeed form rings at the base of the stalk, but they are soft and irregular in shape – not the flat spiky rings of the more typical muscarioids. The partial veil is more fragile also, and apt to leave a small, shredded ring on the stalk – or no ring at all.
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 button, showing soft stacked rings of spiky material that would form cogwheel-style rings in other muscarioids, but instead get pulled apart in A. persicina Photo by Debbie Viess

Amanita persicina button, showing soft stacked rings of spiky material that would form cogwheel-style rings in other muscarioids, but instead get pulled apart in A. persicina
Photo by Debbie Viess

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:

Large, bright red Amanita persicina. Note the soft, irregular (non-spiky) universal veil rings at the base of the stalk. Photo by Erlon Bailey

Large, bright red Amanita persicina. Note the soft, irregular (non-spiky) universal veil rings at the base of the stalk, and the flat, cottony flakes on the cap.
Photo by Erlon Bailey

American muscaria buttons, showing the jagged, spiky universal veil chunks on the cap - very different from the flatter, cottony universal veil of A. persicina.Photo by Debbie Viess

American muscaria buttons, showing the jagged, spiky universal veil chunks on the cap – very different from the flatter, cottony universal veil of A. persicina.
Photo by Debbie Viess

However, persicina won’t have the sharp universal veil chunks that are typical on the cap of the more classic muscaria. Just as at the base of the stalk, sharp, hard universal veil material indicates the more classic American muscaria.


It can also exhibit the red-to-yellow shading that we have seen in the “regular” American muscaria:
A troop of Amanita persicina, showing the classic red-to-yellow coloration typical of all the muscarioid mushrooms Photo by  Erlon Bailey

A troop of Amanita persicina, showing the classic red-to-yellow coloration typical of all the muscarioid mushrooms
Photo by Erlon Bailey

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.

The stem of Amanita persicina, showing its fragile, disorganized universal veil material Photo by  Erlon Bailey

The stem of Amanita persicina, showing its fragile, disorganized universal veil material
Photo by Erlon Bailey

Amanita regalis

Amanita regalis is another closely related species. It can be thought of as a dark brown, more toxic muscaria.regalis DSCN1429A
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.

Amanita regalis, found in Alaska under sitka spruce Photo by Debbie Viess

Amanita regalis in Alaska, under sitka spruce
Photo by Debbie Viess

As you can see, it also has the stacks of cogwheel-like rings at the base of the stalk.

Further Reading

 

On the edibility of Amanita muscaria:

The classic Rubel/Arora paper advocating the eating of muscaria
http://www.davidarora.com/uploads/muscaria_revised.pdf
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
http://nemf1.homestead.com/files/various/muscaria/part2.html
 

The latest scooop on muscarioid taxonomy in North America

József Geml, Rodham Tulloss et al.’s 2008 roundup of North American genetic information
http://www.lter.uaf.edu/pdf/1294_Geml_Tulloss_2008.pdf