'Magic' Mushrooms in Royal Garden: What Is Fly Agaric?

The Amanita muscaria mushroom, which is deep red with white flecks.
The Amanita muscaria mushroom, which is deep red with white flecks. (Image credit: USGS)

Hallucinogenic mushrooms are perhaps the last thing you'd expect to find growing in the Queen of England's garden.

Yet a type of mushroom called Amanita muscaria — commonly known as fly agaric, or fly amanita — was found growing in the gardens of Buckingham Palace by the producers of a television show, the Associated Press reported on Friday (Dec. 12).

A. muscaria is a bright red-and-white mushroom, and the fungus is psychoactive when consumed.

Finding these mushrooms in an English garden would be "not particularly" unusual, saidDonald Pfister, a biologist at Harvard University who studies fungi, though he added that he didn't know for certain whether the fungi in question were, indeed, A. muscaria.

The fungi are known to grow near evergreen trees. They can also grow under deciduous trees, such as birch, Pfister said.

The species is native to temperate and subarctic regions in the Northern Hemisphere, but it has also been introduced to the Southern Hemisphere. [Trippy Tales: The History of 8 Hallucinogens]

The 'shrooms are considered toxic to humans, but they have been used in religious practices for their hallucinogenic properties, especially in Siberia, according to the book "Hallucinogens and Culture" (Chandler & Sharp, 1976) by Peter T. Furst. The main psychoactive ingredient is the compound muscimol, which mimics the brain signaling chemical GABA, which inhibits neuronal activity. This results in feelings of relaxation and lessened anxiety.

Some scientists, including Pfister, think these mushrooms were the inspiration for Santa Claus and other Christmas traditions, because Siberian shamans would give out bags of hallucinatory fungi as presents in late December. Growing under an evergreen tree, the red-and-white fungi could look like Santa's presents.

In addition, some folklorists claim that the Christmas story about flying reindeer may have been a hallucination, since reindeer — which also consume the mushrooms — are common in Siberia.

However, not all experts agree with the Santa-shamanism theory.

A. muscaria is distinct from psilocybin "magic" mushroom, (such as Psilocybe cubensis), a common recreational drug. It was outlawed in the United Kingdom in July 2005. After that, legal sales of A. muscaria began increasing, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.