Toadstools are the stuff of fairy tales and folklore. But this is where foraging gets scary.
Toadstool is the name often used to describe an inedible mushroom (although there are many toxic mushrooms not commonly called toadstools, which is a bit confusing).
The association between toxic mushrooms and toads may have come from the fact that toads were considered highly poisonous. There is some truth in it too, toads have glands on their backs that contain toxins, these poisons help protect them from being eaten by predators like dogs. And it’s rumoured that if you lick a toad you’ll hallucinate. Maybe this explains how you might see Prince Charming when you kiss a frog?
Toads became associated with witches, maybe because they crawl rather than jump and they have warts. They were thought to be witches or demons in animal form, as well as being a key ingredient in potions cooked up in bubbling cauldrons. It used to be believed that toads got their poison by eating poisonous mushrooms, hence the old name of toddesmeat or toadcheese given to these fungi.
And so Toadstools got a bad reputation, as either literally a stool for a toad to sit on (the word is derived from the old word tadstooles), or just because they were being poisonous like a toad and could cause madness or death… another word for toadstool is ‘devils droppings’.
Many myths and children’s stories could have been developed to ward children off eating these appealing, pretty looking fungi.
The most commonly recognised toadstool is the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), with its bright red hats and white spots. It is probably our most familiar toadstool and has been painted as a seat for fairies and a home for gnomes so many times that the Fly Agaric is synonymous with the fairytale.
But the Fly Agaric is far from it’s cute image portrayed in Mary Atwell’s illustrations. It is toxic. It was traditionally used as an insecticide, the cap broken up and sprinkled into saucers of milk. It’s now known to contain ibotenic acid, which both attracts and kills flies. And as well as being lethal to flies, in humans it can cause anything from sickness and twitching to hallucinations seizures, delirium, coma and death.
The term going ‘berserk’ is used to describe the war-hungry, fearless rage which was thought to be induced by Vikings taking fly agaric before battle.
Fly agaric can also cause a perceived distortion in the size of objects. It has been said that Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was inviting her to take a bite from a fly agaric…
‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.
Alice replied, rather shyly,
‘I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’
‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’
I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.
‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, ‘for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’