Psychoactive fungi are found not only in Mexico—as is so often assumed—but throughout the world, on all continents and almost all of the islands of Oceania (Gartz 1995**; 1996**; Stamets 1996**; Stijve 1995**), as well. On the basis of the active compounds they contain, psychoactive fungi can be divided into three groups:
with species from the genera Conocybe, Copelandia, Galerina, Gymnopilus, Inocybe, Panaeolus, Pluteus, and Psilocybe; possibly also Agrocybe, Gerronema, Hygrocybe, Mycena, Naematoloma, Panaeolina, Pholiotina, Psathyrella, and Stropharia
Ibotenic acid/muscimol (isoxazole) type:
with species from the genus Amanita; possibly also Boletus
Ergot alkaloid (ergoline) type:
with species from the genera Balansia and Claviceps; possibly also Aspergillus and Cordyceps
In addition, there are many fungi that are purported to or may be psychoactive but whose constituents are largely unknown. These genera include Boletus, Heimiella, Laetiporus, Lycoperdon, Piptoporus, Polyporus, Russula, and Scleroderma.
Of all the psychoactive fungi, those species of the genus Psilocybe that contain psilocybin have had the greatest cultural significance. Moreover, of all naturally occurring psychoactive substances, these fungi are generally considered to be the best, safest, and most free of side effects. Psilocybe mushrooms that contain psilocybin generally require no extensive preparation techniques and can be eaten fresh (“straight from the meadow,” so to speak) or dried and ingested at a later time. The dosage depends upon the concentration of psilocybin (plus psilocin and baeocystin) present in the mushroom material. Between 20 to 30 mg of psilocybin suffices for a psychedelically effective dosage. The classic “psychedelic,” “visionary,” or “entheogenic” effects begin some ten to sixty minutes after ingestion and continue for almost exactly four hours. The first report of an experience with a Psilocybe species that appeared in Western literature came from R. Gordon Wasson, the founder of ethnomycology:
[T]he visions came whether our eyes were opened or closed. . . . They were in vivid color, always harmonious. They began with art motifs. . . . Then they evolved into palaces with courts, arcades, gardens—resplendent palaces all laid over with semiprecious stones. Then I saw a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot. Later it was as though the walls of our house had dissolved, and my spirit had flown forth, and I was suspended in mid-air viewing landscapes of mountains, with camel caravans advancing slowly across the slopes, the mountains rising tier above tier to the very heavens. . . . The visions were not blurred or uncertain. They were sharply focused, the lines and colors being so sharp that they seemed more real to me than anything I had ever seen with my own eyes. . . . I was seeing the archetypes, the Platonic ideals, that underlie the imperfect images of everyday life. (Wasson 1957, 102, 109**)
Few people who have tried Psilocybe mushrooms will be surprised to learn that both ancient peoples and the American Indians lovingly referred to the species of this genus as divine mushrooms, food of the gods, flesh of the gods, sacred mushrooms, ambrosia, amrita, and magic mushrooms. Only people who have no knowledge of them may describe them as the “bread of the devil” or the “devil’s mushroom” (Graves 1957**).
Magic mushrooms—whether Psilocybe spp. or Panaeolus spp.—cannot be consumed on a daily basis, for they would quickly cease to be effective. According to one common aphorism, “Marijuana is our daily bread, mushrooms the uncommon feast.” The pharmacodynamics of the mushroom make it impossible to use it on a daily, recreational basis:
Rock art from Rio Chinchipe, Peru, which may depict anthropomorphic mushrooms, mushroom spirits, or mushroom shamans.
Psychoactive mushrooms can be found on all continents and in almost every climate zone. In many places, they are esteemed for their visionary effects and are portrayed in appropriately loving ways. (Balinese carving, ca. 1996)
Psilocybin-containing mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe are often confused with species from the closely related genus Hyphaloma. (Hyphaloma fasciculare, photographed in Olympia, Washington)
Spore prints from freshly collected mushrooms often help in identification. The mushroom cap is placed on a piece of paper with the lamellae (gills) facing down. Covering the mushroom with a plastic bowl or a glass may help. After a short time, the mushroom spores will accumulate on the paper. Most of the species that contain psilocybin produce a radial print that is brownish violet in color. The spores give the lamellae their characteristic color when dried. (Cap of Psilocybe cubensis)
If psilocybin is ingested more frequently than once a week, this can quickly lead to the development of a considerable tolerance. As with LSD-25, a dosage twice as high will be needed to produce the same effects. Abstention from the drug, as with LSD-25, will just as quickly result in a disappearance of the tolerance effects. (Geschwinde 1990, 110*)
Identifying Mushrooms That Contain Psilocybin
Many people in Western cultures are afraid of mushrooms (an attitude known popularly as mycophobia). They believe that all mushrooms are toxic and that many of them are lethally poisonous. In fact, there are really very few truly dangerous mushrooms, the most lethal of which is the destroying angel (Amanita phalloides [Vaillant ex Fries] Secretan) (Graves 1957**). It contains amatoxins that can lead to death within three days. To date, no true antidote has been found for this mushroom. While the destroying angel is very easy to recognize, it can under some circumstances be confused with Amanita muscaria or Amanita pantherina.
Species of the genus Psilocybe can be mistaken for dangerously poisonous Inocybe spp. (cf. Gartz 1996):
Since psychoactive mushrooms are typically self-collected, the danger of confusing these with “true” poisonous mushrooms should not be underestimated. There has been a report of a case of mistaken identity between P. semilanceata and the muscarinic Inocybe geophylla, which looks quite similar at first glance. (Bresinsky and Besl 1985, 115**)
In order to avoid such mistakes, it is advisable to prepare a spore print when an identification is in doubt. Every mushroom that produces a brown-violet spore print and whose stem turns blue when squeezed is a psilocybin-containing mushroom of the genus Psilocybe or Panaeolus. However, the blueing discoloration alone is not a sure sign of mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe or Panaeolus (cf. Stamets 1996**). The possibility of mistaken identity is especially acute with species from the genus Galerina, all of which, however, produce an orange-colored spore print (cf. Galerina steglichii).
In order to avoid danger when consuming mushrooms, it is advisable to carefully consult the literature on mushroom identification (e.g., Winkler 1996).
Gartz, Jochen. 1994. Fuchsbandwurm und Pilze. Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, 1993 (2): 165–66. Berlin: VWB.
———. 1996. Das Hauptrisiko bei Verwendung psilocybin-haltiger Pilze—Verwechslung mit anderen Arten. Jahrbuch für Transkulturelle Medizin und Psychotherapie 6 (1995): 287–97.
Winkler, Rudolf. 1996. 2000 Pilze einfach bestimmen. Aarau: AT Verlag.