Even if you have never seen Amanita muscaria in person, you are probably very familiar with them. They have a long history in folklore and religious rituals, but you probably know them best as the toadstool of fairytales and children's books. They are usually pictured with an elf or gnome sitting on them.
That is exactly what they look like in person!
I was taken aback last November when I was hiking in Washington State, and there under a grouping of trees, were several Amanita muscaria. I had to stop a minute because the setting was so magical; I would have almost believed it if a small elf or gnome had been perched atop one of them.
It looked just like it had in my childhood storybooks. A bright red cap on top, sprinkled with white spots.
The cap is very broad on top offsetting the white stem that grows thicker as it gets closer to the ground, giving it a very sturdy look. It was stunning.
For all its beauty, though, it is a poisonous plant.** Not lethally so like Amanita phalloides, known as the death cap because it kills by causing irreversible liver damage, but it's still poisonous. Enough of a risk, that I wouldn't try it.
In general, the genus Amanita can be found around the world. There are so many species, however, that there is no current estimate at this time just how many there are. No matter their numbers, all Amanita have the common toadstool trait which is the "veil" or torn ring of thin tissue you can see just below the cap and surrounding the stem. There is also a second "veil" just at the base of stem.
The veil is a danger sign of some of the most poisonous fungi, but I should caution you that even though that is a tell-tale sign, it isn't the only sign of a poisonous mushroom so, no fungi should ever be eaten unless you purchase it from the store.
The species I saw, muscaria, are found in the more temperate areas of the northern hemisphere. They grow as you would expect, in the grass and woodland debris, usually under trees. The cap on top of the stem that signifies a mushroom or toadstool is actually the fruiting body sent up by the large plant hidden beneath the ground, or in tree trunks, or rotting logs.
These "invisible" plants that grow underground are actually made up of thousands of fine hair-like feeding mycelium that are helping break down dead matter (saprophytes). Many plant diseases are caused by parasitic fungi, but saprophytes are important in breaking down dead plant material, and putting it back into the food chain.
So the Amanita muscaria may be quite poisonous, but it is a tireless worker in the cycle of nature.
I felt so lucky to have spotted one that I didn't care that I couldn't eat it. I was just tickled to have gotten an up-close study of this beautiful fungus, quietly working, totally oblivious to my presence, and putting on quite a show with its colorful cap tipped slightly at me, as if bidding me adieu, as I continued on my hike.
** I use the term plant here very loosely. It is actually one of the fungi, which are part of a large group now considered to belong to a kingdom separate from both plants and animals.
Hilary Rinaldi is a member of the National Garden Writers Association, a nationally published writer, and a certified organic grower. She regularly speaks and writes about all gardening related topics, with an emphasis on making gardening a successful and enjoyable process for anyone who wants to learn. Weekend Gardener Monthly Web Magazine concentrates of giving detailed gardening tips and gardening advice to all levels of gardeners.
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