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Why are they called Magic Mushrooms?

Happy birthday to a man who loves to have fun and be funny. A request for a Daily Doodle about magic mushrooms was posed and ironically enough, due to a ballot measure, I have been researching Psilocybin mushrooms, so I figured what a perfect Doodle topic!

Around 200 mushroom species contain psilocybin, but they aren’t nestled within the same part of the fungal family tree. Instead, they’re scattered around it, and each one has close relatives that aren’t hallucinogenic. “You have some little brown mushrooms, little white mushrooms ... you even have a lichen,” Jason Slot (from Ohio State University) says. “And you’re talking tens of millions of years of divergence between those groups.”

It’s possible that these mushrooms evolved the ability to make psilocybin independently. It could be that all mushrooms once did so, and most of them have lost that skill. But Slot thought that neither explanation was likely. Instead, he suspected that the genes for making psilocybin had jumped between different species.

These kinds of horizontal gene transfers, where genes shortcut the usual passage from parent to offspring and instead move directly between individuals, are rare in animals, but common among bacteria. They happen in fungi, too. In the last decade, Slot has found a couple of cases where different fungi have exchanged clusters of genes that allow the recipients to produce toxins and assimilate nutrients.

These genes seem to have originated in fungi that specialize in breaking down decaying wood or animal dung. Both materials are rich in hungry insects that compete with fungi, either by eating them directly or by going after the same nutrients. So perhaps, Slot suggests, fungi first evolved psilocybin to drug these competitors.

Some historians believe that psychedelic mushrooms may have been used by humans as far back as 9,000 B.C. in North African indigenous cultures, based on representations in rock paintings. Philosophically and scientifically advanced ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all left evidence suggesting that they too had fondness for psychedelics. Statues and other representatives of what appear to be mushrooms have been found in Mayan and Aztec ruins in Central America. The Aztecs used a substance called teonanácatl, which means "flesh of the gods," that many believe was psilocybin mushrooms. Along with peyote, morning glory seeds and other naturally occurring psychotropics, the mushrooms were used to induce a trance, produce visions and communicate with the gods. When Spanish Catholic missionary priests came to the New World in the 16th century, some of them wrote about the use of these psychotropic substances.

However, the idea that psychedelic mushrooms have a long, holy history is highly controversial. Some believe that none of this evidence is definitive, and that people are seeing what they want to see in the ancient paintings, sculptures and manuscripts. There is confirmed use among several contemporary tribes of indigenous peoples in Central America, including the Mazatec, Mixtec, Nauhua and Zapatec.

The first mention of a hallucinogenic experience recorded in London was in 1799, where a man had served psilocybin mushrooms to his family. The variety concerned was the liberty cap mushroom.

There are sporadic reports of mushroom use from around the world, from fly agaric mushrooms in Siberia to kava kava rituals involving mushrooms in Polynesia. It is the distinctive red cap with white spots of the fly agaric mushroom that really stands out, and it’s conceivable that Lewis Carroll experimented with it before writing Alice in Wonderland... based on the story where the caterpillar tells Alice that the mushroom is the key to completing her journey.

It’s entirely possible the Victorians knew about the hallucinatory effects of mushrooms—there are enough examples of rituals around the world, it would be difficult to fail to be aware of the practices of various tribes.

A mycologist (one who studies mushrooms) named R. Gordon Wasson was traveling with his wife through Mexico to study mushrooms starting in 1953. In 1955 they became the first outsiders to participate in a ritual ceremony using magic mushrooms conducted by a shaman of the Mazatec, an indigenous people who live in the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico. Wasson wrote an article about his findings, which was published in Life magazine in 1957. An editor came up with the title "Seeking the Magic Mushroom" and the article is the source of the phrase.

One of Wasson's colleagues, Roger Heim, had enlisted the help of Albert Hofmann (the "father" of LSD), who isolated and extracted psilocybin and psilocin from the mushrooms Heim and Wasson brought back from Mexico.

Timothy Leary, perhaps the most famous proponent of psychotropic drugs such as LSD, read the Life article and was intrigued, and he began experimenting with them at Harvard University. From there, magic mushrooms became inextricably tied to the hippie movement and its search for a new form of spirituality for the rest of the decade. For years, mushrooms were mostly associated with the counterculture, becoming schedule I drugs May 1, 1971 with the Controlled Substances Act signed by President Nixon going into effect.

In October 2018, the Food & Drug Administration granted Compass Pathways permission to research mushrooms as a treatment for depression. Researchers plan to combine intense therapy with psilocybin in hopes of finding better ways to combat treatment-resistant depression, which they say affects about 100 million people worldwide.

In September 2019, Johns Hopkins University unveiled its Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. There, scientists plan to evaluate psilocybin as a possible treatment for everything from opioid addiction, Lyme disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, nicotine and alcohol dependency, and many other ailments.

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