The fluid in the dropper is an opaque off-white; almost opalescent. I empty it under my tongue, then sit back and feel the gentle burn of the grain alcohol base. I hold it there a full minute as instructed. The taste is strong, but not unpleasant. Fruity, but also almost soapy. Like I opened my mouth just as someone sprayed a nice air freshener, but a quick glimpse at the very simple ingredients list reveals nothing as noxious as chemical perfume. “Fly Agaric caps. Grain alcohol. Distilled water.” There’s a picture of a familiar, iconic, orange-red mushroom sprinkled with small white bumps. This is a tincture of the toxic Amanita Muscaria mushroom.
I can’t think of this fungus without recalling a lifetime of misinformation about it. Somewhere in my dad’s house I’m sure there’s still a 1970s pocket edition of Wild Edible and Poisonous Plants of Alaska. As children, the description within of Amanita Muscaria was sufficient to scare us away from it. In Boy Scouts we were warned that a single bite was certain, agonizing death, and that even touching it would allow the poison to pass through your skin and destroy your liver. So the pretty toadstools that appeared each rainy August were more often than not carefully removed and disposed of.
I was well into my thirties before I discovered that, in addition to fatalities from Amanita consumption being exceedingly rare (none verified within the last century), it’s also a very storied plant medicine with a cross-cultural pharmacopaea that predates written history. Yes it’s toxic and it can kill you, but this is dependent upon factors which can be eliminated if the plant matter is suitably processed by a qualified herbalist or ethnobotanist who’s studied plant medicines.
The Fly Agaric mushroom contains poison that can produce violent abdominal cramps and vomiting. In high enough doses, one can theoretically vomit themselves to death through extreme dehydration or other emergent issues. If the toxin is removed however, what’s left behind are muscimol and ibotenic acid, both of which have very potent opiate and hallucinogenic properties.
Various cultures developed their own methods of removing the poisons. The Greeks and Romans fed the fungus to snails, which, not being affected by the poison, would break it down into harmless substances during digestion. The snails could then be cooked and eaten, giving the consumer the psychedelic effects without the abdominal discomfort. On the Greek island of Patmos, where John the Divine penned the book of Revelation, There are ruins of a second-century monastery. Within these ruins is a mosaic that depicts people carrying baskets of snails and reddish-orange mushrooms sprinkled with white dots (and this could very well explain some of the visions written in St. John’s Apocalypse). Siberian shamans feed the mushrooms to reindeer, then collect the reindeers’ urine and drink it. Their way of “taking one for the team” to seek wisdom to share with their people.
Fortunately, modern herbalists can produce substances such as tinctures, ointments, and even truffles, all of which are way less gross than eating snails or drinking pee.
Social media mining algorithms being what they are, I only had to interact with one random interesting post before my feed became busy with a subculture known as “poisoners.” These are people with a passion for and a tremendous collective knowledge of how to work with various poisonous plants to achieve medicinal properties. Among those I follow are Bobbi of The Jagged Path, Seamus Black of Emporium Black, and Colby Michael of The Poisoner’s Apothecary.
At this point, I think a more comprehensive understanding of the term “poison” is in order. What is a poison exactly? Certainly there are caustic and harmful substances that have no physiologically beneficial properties whatsoever, and in our modern western society this is what usually comes to mind when one sees the iconic skull and crossbones. But there’s a much broader, historical idea as well. Witches, witchdoctors, shamans, and folk healers used thousands of baneful plants to injure when desired, but also to heal. Any doctor can tell you that the difference between a drug and a poison is dosage, and indeed the same drugs used to anesthetize patients for surgeries are also used to execute prisoners sentenced to capital punishment. The atropine injectors they issued us in the Army contain a substance synthesized from belladonna, and this is used to counter the deadly effects of nerve agent. It is itself a harmful substance however, so a second injector is included to act as an antidote to the nerve agent antidote. The earliest practitioners of homeopathy used actual poisons such as arsenic in very small amounts, a far cry from the sugar pills you can buy at Whole Foods. In fact, arsenic is still used in some of the older chemotherapy formulas used to treat cancer. My naturopath once prescribed me apis, a substance distilled from ground-up bees, to counter a particularly nasty spider bite (my leg swelled to the point that it was too painful to stand). I’ve heard anecdotal accounts of people who claim to have used it to stop anaphylaxis from bee stings in its tracks.
In shamanic thought, one definition of poison is anything more than what’s needed. Food. Sleep. Anger. Money. Attachment. Even water and oxygen are fatal in ridiculously voluminous amounts. I’ve taken Vicodin after a surgery; one or two takes the edge off the pain, but I know that eating the entire bottle will kill me. I enjoy a drink or two now and then, but I know that chugging an entire bottle of fine bourbon might kill me. Such is the way of baneful plants. A leaf of the Datura plant will kill you. A thin, half-inch sliver from a leaf however can have a sedative effect, or even a mind-opening one. This concept of appropriate dosage is what I’m focusing on as I take my first nervous steps down this ancient yet new-to-me path.
Bobbi at The Jagged Path has several of her tinctures formulated to a micro dose at half a dropper full per day. A few minutes after taking the recommended dosage of Fly Agaric, I start to feel the now-familiar gentle warmth spreading through my body. This is followed by a sedative effect not unlike Xanax, but without the grogginess or “hangover” that often follows. This is timely for me, as the Veterans Administration has recently cut off the “AS-NEEDED” Xanax script That I had for twenty years. Our country being at war perpetually since 2003 has created a subculture of damaged young and middle-aged men and women, many of whom suffer chronic pain and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the result of an unprecedented number of combat deployments. It’s predictable that drugs such as opiates and benzodiazepines would be used to self-medicate, often to the point of the VA’s sometimes arbitrarily-assigned definitions of abuse. Therefore, the culture of care within the VA has moved hard against continuing to prescribe such medications unless “absolutely necessary.” Never mind that pain and suffering are subjective; the pendulum has swung in a less compassionate direction by removing medicine and often leaving a void without timely treatment interventions to replace them.
But I digress. Im off the benzos, which, while leading to a lot of unnecessary anxiety over the course of the pandemic, is not necessarily a bad thing. The long-term effects of this class of drugs on cognitive function and memory is becoming better understood, so they’re not something I want to continue to need. As it happens, one of the claimed benefits of Fly Agaric is in the recovery from benzodiazepine addiction.
In addition to the Fly Agaric tincture she makes, Bobbi also uses many other plants, some baneful and some not. Of the former, extracts of datura, henbane, mandrake, mugwort, belladonna, Monkshood, and wormwood can be purchased. On the lighter side she offers lotus, rose, white willow, and a selection of digestive bitters, among other concoctions.
“Flying ointments” are ancient formulas used by European witches. While much scary folklore has been attributed to them by superstitious peasants and clergy, such as using the rendered fat of babies to allow witches to fly, they are in fact psychedelic preparations used to bring about a transcendent or meditative state during rituals, or to relieve pain or enhance healing. It’s probable that their hallucinogenic, analgesic, or euphoria-enhancing properties are where the comparison to “flying” comes from, and this description was exaggerated and demonized by the spiritually monopolizing church.
Bobbi, a practicing witch, makes and sells flying ointments. I have a tin of her Fly Agaric witches’ flying ointment, but I’ve yet to try it as of this writing. She makes several others, each of which are tailored to achieve a specific effect.
Seamus Black, a retired chef and chocolatier, opened Emporium Black in 2019. His slogan is “Flying ointments made to be eaten.” His particular specialty is disguising these traditional plant teachers in chocolate truffles. With his decades of experience in ethnobotany and the Native American Church, he is well-trained in the formulation and use of entheogens. And while he does advise to start with half a truffle and wait ten minutes before deciding if you want the other half, he also states that none of them will cause anyone to “trip balls.” He’s worked out a formula where a single truffle will have the best effect for the broadest audience, without causing any distress for a consumer. And his comprehensive description is spot-on. It’s nothing like splitting an eighth of psilocybin ‘shrooms with your friend at a festival, or certainly not anything like dropping a hit of acid. Each truffle has its own formula designed for a particular effect, and can contain datura, Fly Agaric, mugwort, henbane, mandrake, wormwood, rowan berries, and any of several other baneful plants, as well as more innocent ingredients to add flavor and make the experience more palatable. Nevertheless, the gothic art on each individual package bears a skull and crossbones, and warns consumers to “Eat at your own risk.” All wrapped in silky Belgian or white chocolate.
Seamus recommends taking one of his truffles on an empty stomach, or with coffee and a light snack. He advises one should then meditate, or focus their intentions, engaging in some kind of creative activity. I started off a bit nervous about the truffles that contain datura, after recalling stories from the ’80s of teenagers in southern states smoking “Jimson Weed” and ending up comatose. but this anxiety quickly left, as a sedative mood and light body high overtook me. The psychedelic effect was in no way intoxicating or incapacitating; it was more a shifting of my mental state to one of far-seeing introspection. This was not unlike my thoughts the day after my first experience with psilocybin, where the big realizations came after the “high” part of the trip had worn off. Only now, I was in that state of mind almost instantly, along with just being in a “chill” mood.
Elsewhere on this site, Ive written of my affinity toward the shamanic archetype of the fool, and that one of the methods employed by the fool is to drink poison and turn it into medicine. At the time of writing I was speaking figuratively of turning adversity into humor, and literally of using alcohol as a social lubricant and agent of mirth. At the time I had no conscious awareness that, with the help and guidance of some truly talented and inspirational individuals, I’d be stepping down the path of seekers and seers of generations past, working with plant spirit teachers to increase my awareness and heal my body and mind.
Disclaimer: I am neither a health care professional nor herbalist, merely a seeker recounting my personal, subjective experience. Nothing written here should be considered as advice or prescription to treat medical or psychological conditions, nor are the products mentioned intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Furthermore, no one should engage in the consumption of baneful plants on their own, as doing so can lead to serious illness or death. If this is a path that interests you, contact a qualified and reputable herbalist or ethnobotanist who specializes in these plant medicines, and ALWAYS consult a physician before undertaking this venture if you have a medical condition or are on medication that may negatively interact with plant substances. Links to companies or individuals who I follow and have experience with their products are listed here.