Amanita Habitat and Growing Conditions

Amanita Habitat & Growing Conditions

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This spot is very interesting because it describes many of the characteristic features of the natural habitat where this mushroom is to be found. The mushroom was found on a road which I have described running along the seacoast. This road was used at times by neighbors as a horse trail, and, consequently, it was sprinkled here and there with droppings. The association of the mushrooms and animal manure is too well known to repeat here. The spot where Alice had found her mushroom was about six feet off of this trail on the seaward side. It was a depressed shallow spot that had poor drainage and when the rain fell it tended to collect here. Therefore, with ample moisture the forest growth was luxuriant in this area. The mushroom-growing spot was in the center of a triangle formed by two oak trees and one birch tree.

Over the years the rotting leaves, logs, and sticks had piled up a rich spongy humus in this area. There was the salt of the sea air, the nutrition of the oak and the birch, the shallow basin where the deep soil was kept moist, and the ample shade which was broken only by the cleft of the road through the trees. This is what one would call a natural environment for the growth of the Amanita muscaria.

On July 27 it was raining lightly outside and the air was warm and humid. Periodically thunder would roll from the mountains to the west, and round their peaks the sky would occasionally be shattered by lightning. Remembering the folk tales and the ancient legends about the association between lightning and the growth of the mushrooms, it occurred to me that this would be a good time to go and search for them.

Betty, Harry, and I put on raincoats and rubber boots and sloshed off into the woods. We first went to the spot which was now affectionately called Alice’s Cave to see if any more mushrooms had come. We were delightfully surprised when we found a new bud of an Amanita muscaria just pushing out of the moist soil. This was a wonderful opportunity to watch the growth of Amanita muscaria. Harry went back to the laboratory to get a camera and some color film while I just sat and watched this marvel of nature heaving up the soil and thrusting its proud head into the air.

I noticed that the mushroom looked like a small golf ball as it came through the earth. The entire nob of the mushroom was covered by a golden membrane which extended down below the ground to the root level. I knew that as the mushroom grew further this membrane would burst, and it would split up into little pieces which in the mature plant would be the warts that we see on the cap. The lower part of the membrane would become the annulus or little necktie of the stalk of the mushroom. We were fortunate in being able to get a good series of colored photographs of this mushroom during the next twenty-four hours and were thus able to record every stage of its growth.

I spent every day of the following month, August, in scouring the woods but had no luck in finding any more mushrooms. By this time I had come to recognize those spots where it was likely that mushrooms in general, and particularly Amanita muscaria, would grow. I realized that a complex of circumstances was necessary before the mushroom could grow. In walking, I always looked first for either oaks, birches, pines or hemlocks. These were the trees most intimately associated with the Amanita muscaria. Secondly, I looked for the shady side of a hill or ravine where the moisture was ever-present, and certain types of rocky outcroppings where humus had collected that appeared to be favorable for the growth of the mushroom. But each time I found one of these promising constellations of growth factors I would be disappointed. The presence of these natural circumstances did not necessarily produce the Amanita muscaria.

In being so intense while on the lookout for this particular species of mushroom, I, too, began to feel, like the ancients, that the growth of this mushroom could not be accounted for entirely on the basis of natural circumstances. It is a fact, that even though Amanita muscaria is known in many lands, as far as I know, it is one of the few mushrooms that has resisted artificial cultivation in the laboratory. I myself had converted an old wine cellar in the basement of the laboratory into a small fungus farm. I used the spores from the specimens we had found and set up many different natural conditions of moisture, soil, and temperature in order to cultivate the mushroom. But I never was able to cause one single specimen of Amanita muscaria to sprout under these laboratory conditions. There is a legend among certain Mexicans that mule manure is particularly favorable for the growth of one of their species of sacred mushroom; but even this material did not help to produce growth in the spores in my laboratory.

In the latter part of August, I had to go to New York on business. I chose to go by car because I had several stops to make on the way. I was driving back from New York City on August 26, 1955, and decided to take a different route up the Hudson Valley rather than the U.S. 1 coastal route. I wanted to see some of the Berkshire country at the height of summer. I was crossing from the Hudson River Valley to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on route U.S. 20, when I was stopped by a policeman just outside of Pittsfield. He informed me that the heavy August floods that had ravaged New England had washed out many bridges for the next fifty miles, and I would have to detour. He suggested that I continue north on Route 7, to North Adams, Massachusetts, and there to take Route 2, the Mohawk Trail, eastward. Since I had never been to this part of the country I was not too disappointed at this detour.

In leaving North Adams, which is in the Berkshire Mountains, one follows a very steep road up the mountain, and from its peak there begins a long eastward descent down what is known as the Mohawk Trail. Apparently the Mohawk Indians had used this notch in the mountains as a trail. The road is winding and narrow and has some rather exciting views overlooking the steep gorge below the road. There are very few places where one can stop a car in order to admire this scenery. I had come down the Mohawk Trail almost to the bottom and I had been keeping one eye on the magnificent views around me. I noticed that the birch, the oak, and the hemlock were clustered very heavily at certain points, and I noticed that small brooks and ledge seepage kept these areas fresh and moist. I decided that if I could find a place to stop the car I would get out and investigate one of these likely-looking places. As I was approaching Charle-mont I found a small space to the right of the road where one could with safety park a car.

I got out of the car and found an old lumber trail striking off into the woods. As I walked along this trail I found many specimens of different kinds of mushrooms. It seemed that the time of the year was just right for mushroom growth. After a half mile of this trail I turned back, because I had not found a single Amanita muscaria. When I came to within fifty yards of my car I suddenly spied a huge Amanita muscaria shining with its golden luminosity through the shade of the undergrowth. I rushed for it in order to make sure that it was not an illusion. It was real. It was at least fourteen inches tall and had a cap fully eight inches across. The cap was covered with several hundred small warts. This was the first luck I had had in finding a new source of the mushroom since early July.

I examined the area around the car square yard by square yard. All in all I found nine such large specimens of Amanita muscaria within fifty yards of the car. I extended my search for at least a half mile, in all directions from my car, but the only place where I found any mushrooms was the spot where I had by chance first stopped. This was too exciting to leave, so I decided to stay in this area for the next few days and continue my search.

I registered at a local motel, got some boxes of ice, and iced all my specimens so that they would stay fresh. I went into the village and talked to a number of the local inhabitants and asked them if they knew anything about the kind of mushrooms I was seeking. I did not find a single native who had ever seen the Amanita muscaria, or in fact had even heard of it in that area. So I got no guidance from these sources. The next day I was up bright and early and plunged into the woods to continue my search. I walked up and down this area for the next few days, and I believe that I must have covered five square miles minutely, but I had no further finds. My lucky bag of the first day was all I could come home with.

On September 1, I had gone to bed about one in the morning, which is early for me, exhausted from the long trip to New York. The night was foggy and there was a fine drizzling rain. This was just the kind of night in which I can fall into a deep sleep and nothing can wake me up. But I did not sleep well, evanescent dreams kept drifting through my consciousness. I arose finally and looked at my watch. It was 4:00 A.M., I had been in bed for three hours. My wake-fulness was unusual; and my friends can testify to the fact that I am the laziest man in the world to wake up in the morning. I tried to recollect the dreams, but they were all fragmentary and I couldn’t reconstruct any of them. So I tried to sleep again but I couldn’t.

I got out of bed at four-thirty with the feeling that I had to do something, so I bathed, dressed, and ate, and at 6:00 A.M. drove to the laboratory which was about ten miles away. It finally occurred to me that what I should do was go out and look for mushrooms since the day was just perfect with the light rain and the fog. So I headed for the seacoast on the foundation property.

I went to Alice’s Cave and found three new Amanita muscaria that had just budded through the ground. I began to feel keen, so I plunged on into the woods, following my instincts. I walked down on the low-tide rocks of the seashore and went north for about a quarter of a mile. To my left rose a rather sheer stone cliff about fifty feet high, and to the right was the sea. I slipped and slithered over the rounded rocks on the beach. But of course this was no place to look for mushrooms. So I decided to return to the shore above. I climbed up the face of the cliff and as I broke through the underbrush at the top I found myself in a clump of birch and oak, and there were two more specimens of the golden mushroom. These, too, had just budded through the ground.

Then I wandered north through the wet underbrush and found three more specimens just budding through the ground. This was the first time I had had an opportunity to watch so many Amanita muscaria coming up all at once. I didn’t pick any of these specimens because they were too young, but just carefully noted their site in order to return later when they were full-grown. I found them all in the woods among oaks and birches.

Between the shore line of forest and the laboratory there was a large open blueberry field. I decided to explore this blueberry field where it adjoined the woods. And here again I found that there .were a few specimens of the golden mushroom growing just at the edge of the shade of the trees. Now these mushrooms were growing in an open field. Their position was such that they were protected from the hot morning sun because the forest was to the east of them, and the sun would probably not hit them until about 11:00 A.M.

All in all, my early morning adventure was quite a success in that I had found seventeen specimens of Amanita muscaria in two hours. I got to the laboratory at 8:00 A.M. and announced my findings to my colleagues. I told them that all the specimens I had found were newly budded and probably would not mature for at least twenty-four hours. But we decided to check them sooner to see how they were coming along. At three o’clock in the afternoon, which was about eight hours after I had first found these mushrooms popping through the ground, I went back to look at my find. I was utterly amazed; the seventeen mushrooms had become full-grown, and, of these, ten were almost rotten from the heat of the sun and worm infestation. Here I discovered something which none of the books had mentioned about the Amanita muscaria. There is a certain small slug of a pale oystery color with two little horns on its head which seems to live only for an Amanita muscaria feast. These little slugs attack the mushroom from the base of the stalk and ascend the stalk in its interior by eating their way along it. This, of course, cuts off vital nutrition from the mushroom, and so it collapses.

I had really learned something. These specimens, from the time I had seen them as little buttons just peeking through the ground, were completely full-grown and ripe within eight hours. I could only pick seven of the mushrooms that I had earlier marked, because the rest were crumbling as a result of being overripe and as a result of being eaten away by the little slugs.

I alerted the rest of the staff and we again covered the entire peninsula. After a three-hour search we came back empty-handed. There were no other specimens of Amanita muscaria to be found. The only ones present were the ones that I had uncovered earlier in the day.

In reflecting on this lucky haul of so many mushrooms on our property all at once, I concluded that the natural conditions, that is, temperature, season of the year, moisture, and other factors, were all optimal for the growth of the Amanita muscaria. I decided to return to my site on the Mohawk Trail in western Massachusetts to see if the mushrooms were growing there as well as they were growing in Maine. This was a three-hundred-mile drive, and I covered it rather quickly the next day. I stayed at this site for three days, and my luck was far better than anything I could have imagined. I found two hundred and thirty-five first-class specimens of Amanita muscaria. This gave me invaluable experience in learning where to find them, the different habitat in which they grew, and the various colors, shapes, and characteristics that they assumed under different conditions. This insight was to be a great help to me later on when I began to study the use of the Amanita muscaria by peoples in ancient times and in far-off places; in their metaphors and allusions to mushrooms, I could recognize readily references to the natural habitat of the Amanita muscaria.

– Excerpted and paraphrased from “The Sacred Mushroom” by Andrija Puharich.

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