The general term “mushrooms” includes a wide variety of fungal plants. They typically have a domed cap on a stalk and many have gills on the underside of the cap.
Among the various mushroom species, many are considered nutritious and beneficial to the human diet. Several varieties, however, have interesting hallucinogenic and even lethal properties that could be of interest to the murder mystery writer. The term “toadstool” is often reserved for the inedible or poisonous varieties.
One of the most popular varieties of mushroom that falls under the general category of “interesting but lethal” is the toadstool Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly amanita. It is considered a poisonous plant, but its beauty and psychoactive components often tempt adventurous people to consume it.
The Amanita muscaria is one of the most easily recognized of the poisonous mushrooms—a large white-gilled, white-spotted red mushroom. Although the toadstool can be lethal if eaten fresh and raw, parboiling the plant weakens its toxicity and releases the hallucinogenic substance muscimol trapped within.
This alluring toadstool has interesting folklore attached to it. The mushroom is the hallucinatory ‘shroom responsible for Alice’s trip in Wonderland and there are interesting tales of this plant used as a traditional symbol of yuletide happiness in Central Europe, Russia and Scandinavia for many centuries—calling the plant “a red light shining bright in the winter darkness.” Images of a red-suited Santa Claus and his flying reindeer are often attributed to the high—described as a “roaring drunk”—produced when this mushroom was boiled and the remaining pot liquid used as a holiday drink.
Native throughout the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, this lethal plant has been unintentionally introduced to many countries in the Southern Hemisphere as they were carried along with pine and birch trees for developing plantations in these southern regions.
The deadly outcomes from consuming this plant are certainly dependent on how much is eaten and if the plant has been boiled first to weaken the muscimol toxin. If used properly in your murder mystery plot, this plant can be an effective and stealthy killer.
Once the raw plant has been ingested, low blood sugar and degenerative changes in the body’s organs develop—particularly weakening the kidney, liver and heart muscles. The symptoms are slow to develop (usually six to fifteen hours after ingestion and sometimes as much as forty-eight hours). An unsuspecting victim might not only consume a fully lethal dose, but this person wouldn’t know anything is wrong or seek medical attention until it’s too late.
The initial symptoms of Amanita muscaria mushroom poisoning are mild but rapidly build into severe stomach pains, violent vomiting, intense thirst and bloody diarrhea. An interesting point to note is that the victim will remain conscious almost to the end before finally lapsing into a coma and dying—allowing the writer to compose dramatic and entertaining murder scenes.
From a medical standpoint, life support measures may keep the person alive for an additional period of time, but the damage to the liver is so severe and irreversible that the only sure way to save a victim is with a full liver transplant.
So for a mind-blowing yuletide holiday high, a properly prepared Amanita muscaria tonic may be just the thing; but for a one-way trip to the morgue, use the plant in its natural state for creating a stunningly spectacular murder scene.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!