Until this morning I would have failed the following multiple-choice quiz:
Fly Agaric is:
a) The slogan for a Serbian airline
b) Brad Pitt's trout lure in A River Runs Through It
c) The gelatin scientists put in petri dishes to grow bacteria
d) A poisonous mushroom that might have caused Vikings to rampage
The answer, as you might have guessed from the photo and headline above, is d). I discovered this by consulting The Naturalist's Notebook's book collection—we have a separate shelf for fungi—and searching the Internet. I wanted to identify one of the many types of mushrooms that have lately turned many lawns and roadsides around here into fairy kingdoms (see photos below). That beautiful yellow fungi turned out to be a type of fly agaric, whose name may have come from the mushroom's use (when mixed with milk) as an insecticide back in the 1200s.
The fly agaric (more typically red) turns out to have been used over the centuries as not only an insecticide but also as a food (after parboiling) and a hallucinogen. Which brings us to the Vikings. One historian proposed that their consumption of these mushrooms turned them into almost superhuman warriors who fought as if in a crazed trance. This out-of-control behavior led to the coining of the old Norse word "berserk," meaning "bear shirt" or "warrior in a bear skin."
And thus today we have a word to describe the madness that grips sports fans, Christmas shoppers and talk-radio hosts.
In case you were wondering, the study of mushrooms and other fungi is called mycology, from the Greek word for fungi. And mushrooms are not plants. Fungi are a separate kingdom and are more genetically similar to animals than to plants.
Below is a mini-gallery of fungi that we saw yesterday here in coastal Maine. Apologies that I haven't had time to identify all of them: