COMMON NAMES: death's head, fly agaric, the woodpecker of Mars

"One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter." One side of what? The other side of what? thought Alice to herself. "Of the .-mushroom," said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud; and in another moment it was out of sight.
Lewis Carroll
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Out of sight, indeed. As little Alice (soon to be big Alice, thanks to the Caterpillar's culinary suggestion) discovered, the lowly mushroom can make you high. Lewis Carroll, a known dabbler in psychedelia, evidently had more than lunch in mind when he portrayed Alice eating her way through a mind-bending buffet.

It is now believed that what Carroll had in mind was the powerful Amanita muscaria mushroom.

Although the Amanita muscaria has been used as a hallucinogen for more than six thousand years, it is today rapidly dropping in popularity because of significant dangers. In fact, some mushrooms of, the genus Amanita are so highly toxic' that they account for virtually 90 percent of all cases of lethal mushroom poisoning.

Amanita muscaria picked up the nickname "fly agaric" because the poison in the mushroom was, at one time; used by Europeans on flypaper. Just as it spelled disaster for the unsuspecting housefly, it can end a drug sampler's career permanently.

The six- to eight-hour journey has been described as a kind of marijuana high and alcohol drunk combined. But Amanita muscaria is more complex and potentially dangerous than that, full of good and bad news.

First, some bad effects of the drug begin to take hold fifteen to twenty minutes after ingestion. These may include dizziness, confusion, dryness of the mouth, rapid breathing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and muscular twitching, along with a general feeling of numbness in the limbs. Now the good these feelings have passed, a period of peacefulness follows, including a twilight sleep lasting about two hours. From behind closed eyelids, mildly euphoric dreamlike sounds and visions are heard and seen. Upon waking, vivid, psilocybin like hallucinations and size distortions may be experienced, along with physical agitation and a sense of overall joviality.

Back to the bad some cases, users of Amanita muscaria have been known to become both paranoid and agressive during their trips. Red-faced, they have exhibited high levels of violence and self-destructiveness, even to the point of self-mutilation. Because things may be seriously distorted accidents of all sorts are not uncommon on this trip. Prolonged use can be debilitating mentally. For those who have consumed too much, raving madness may result. Overdose can cause delirium, convulsions, deep coma, and death as a result of heart failure. The only known antidote for overdose is atropine, but the effectiveness of this drug on Amanita muscaria "poisoning" is now being seriously questioned. Some profess that adding atropine may increase the chance of serious illness or death.

Most important, one must know which mushroom to pick. A small mistake in-this regard can be deadly.

In Europe and Asia, the Amanita muscaria mushroom can be found growing wild on forest floors underneath and among fallen leaves. It has a large flat bright-crimson or red cap and is mottled. with white warts. In North America: it also grows the floor of spruce, birch, or pine forests,: but has a white orange-red, or yellow cap, and white, red, or yellow wats.

Please don't let these brief, sketchy descriptions suffice. Many of Amanita and: similar mushrooms exist, and some of them are very deadly. Only an expert can harvest with any degree of certainty. For example, one close relative of Amanita muscaria is Amanita phalloides, also known as "destroying angel," "avenging angel," "white amanita," . "death cup," and "deadly amanita." This, the most lethal member of the Amanita genus, is 60 percent to 100 percent fatal when eaten. Growing to 8 inches in height, with caps that are 2 to 5 inches wide, it ranges in color from yellow to green to white to green-brown. The stem is white. The most distinguishing characteristic of Amanita phalloides is the mushroom's bulbous base, or vulva, called the "death's cup." Other members of the species, such as Amanita pantherina and Amanita verna, are equally dangerous. Beware, beware!

Once the collector is absolutely certain that the mushrooms gathered are really Amanita muscaria, they should be , thoroughly dried, either outdoors or in a 200-degree oven, to reduce possible toxicity.

A starting dose should be limited to no more than one medium-size mushroom, until individual tolerance level is determined. Tolerance varies widely from person to person just as dosage of active ingredients varies widely from mushroom to mushroom. One to three mushrooms is considered an average dose, but-under no circumstances should more than three ever be consumed.

Amanita muscaria actually contains a number of psychedelic substances, including muscazon, ibotenic acid, muscimol, and bufotenine.   

Interestingly enough, the main psychoactive ingredients of Amanita muscaria pass unchanged into the user's urine. Siberian natives and other primitive users save urine excreted while tripping for reuse by themselves and their friends later. Urine can be recycled four or five times before losing potency. Though the thought of drinking urine may not be very appealing, even if it is psychoactive, it is not only the thriftiest way to keep the party going but the safest as well, since it is easy to tell if the previous user is still alive.

As Amanita muscaria's dangers can far outweigh its pleasures, it is a drug to be avoided by those who value life and well-being.