“Funkadelic” is a word. I discovered this word whilst looking for words that might adequately entitle this post, and funkadelic hits the spot. These fungi are certainly funkadelic.
You’re probably going to laugh at me when I tell you I didn’t know what they were. I mean, for crap’s sake, they’re only the most recognizable mushroom ever. But I blanked. All I could remember was that gnomes and faeries are often found sitting on them in myths. I didn’t remember the name until I dropped by the fungi page on Wikipedia and saw them there. Fly agaric. Duh. Of course, its Latin name is far more lovely: Amanita muscaria.
You’ll laugh even harder when I tell you I was terrified of them, but I couldn’t remember if they were the extremely poisonous variety or not. My mother used to fill my head with visions of instant death to ensure I didn’t go putting wild mushrooms in my mouth as a kid. That lesson sorta stuck. Even knowing fly agaric mushrooms don’t kill many people, I’m still wary of them. I think it’s that siren-red color with the white bits sticking out. It’s beautiful, but not something I’d put in my mouth.
I don’t remember ever seeing these in the wild before. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them outside of illustrations. When we lived in Indiana, I was just a wee thing, and all I remember is morels. Oh, darlings, the wild morels! We’d pick bags of them, and one of my earliest memories is being in my paternal grandmother’s kitchen, watching a bunch of them sizzle in butter while my mouth watered. Even seeing all the bugs we’d just soaked out of them didn’t kill my appetite. They’re delicious, and any residual bugs are just bonus protein. That’s one of the only things I miss about Indiana: being able to pluck these things out of the ground. Buying them dried at an exorbitant price just isn’t the same.
Whether we ever ran into Amanita muscaria, I don’t know.
In Arizona, of course, mushrooms aren’t precisely abundant. We’d get excited by the tiny little brown ones that appeared in the lawns on occasion, and the day we found the enormous puffball at camp on the San Francisco Peaks was one of the most exciting fungi-related discoveries ever. The thing was bigger than my head. That’s pretty intense for someone who’d barely seen a mushroom since the age of 3.
I’ve seen plenty of fungi since moving up here. I’ve seen those platy wood mushrooms, some of them growing like decorative shelves in stacks on the trees, some of them looking large enough to sit comfortably on. I’ve seen any number of tan mushrooms, from tiny little things dotting the grass and peeking out from nests of moss to much larger ones that look like they’d make a substantial meal, if only you knew which ones weren’t horribly poisonous. But I haven’t seen many colorful ones.
Then, as I was out scoping drowned roads with my area manager, I saw a bunch of the reddest, most fairy-tale looking mushrooms I’d ever seen, flourishing in the grass of the verge. And I vowed I’d get out there and photograph them if it ever stopped raining. Which it did. The little bunch I’d seen was gone, and what was left was starting to look a bit ragged and elderly compared to the young storybook ones I’d seen, but they were still magnificent. Especially to Arizona eyes.
So of course I took nine billion pictures of them. Fly agaric may not be exciting to some people, but they’re thrilling to me.
After getting my initial fill of macro mushrooms, I stepped back for a more global look. They’re growing at the feet of some very large oak trees, sticking up through the short-cut grass. There’s only one short stretch where they all grow – I didn’t find any on the verge before or after, although there are some random ones in other locations around the North Creek area.
There are many things I didn’t know about this mushroom. One is that it isn’t horribly fatal. The second is why it’s called fly agaric. Wikipedia says it’s because the delirium they caused mimicked mental illness, which medieval people thought was caused by flies buzzing round the brainpan. Really?
And people used to use them as insecticide. They’d put some in milk. Dunno if it worked. Perhaps it’s a psychedelic for bugs, as well, and they’d just go off and stare at random things going, “Maaan, that’s so deep” until their natural predators came along and ate them. Or perhaps its deadly reputation is well-earned amongst the arthropods. The article says mycologist Peter Bulliard couldn’t kill any insects with it, and one of the compounds isolated attracts rather than repels bugs, so its use as a bug zapper seems rather limited.
People apparently can use it to bring on altered states, but it’s got icky side effects. The mushroom above seems to have caused itself an altered state. It also looks like something SETI could use. By the rules of sympathetic magic, this means I can take it to summon aliens, right?
And, I come to find out, the spots can wash off in the rain. Brilliant. It’s a wonder any of these had any spots left at all. At least that explains why a few of them were looking somewhat bald.
That one reminds me of Marilyn Monroe. And that awful Gene Wilder movie, The Woman in Red. I saw it when I was a tiny child, and never forgot it – because letting your dress blow all around you looked like enormous good fun, only we didn’t have any grates around, so I never got to try it. I could have done it at the blowhole at Wupatki, I suppose, but by then I’d stopped wearing dresses. Maybe next time I go down I’ll bring a red dress and white tights and do a bit of performance art: “Woman Imitating Amanita muscaria Imitating The Woman in Red.” This is how my brain works, people. I’m afraid it’s broken.
So that’s them. I’ve got a few funky-colored funkadelic fungi from this bunch, but I’ll save them for later. I’ve heard that fifteen caps are a fatal dose, and I love my readers, so we’ll stop before XV.