Diligent mushroom pickers pick valuable mushrooms not only for their own consumption, but in some cases can also sell them to dealers for cash. However, this fall, a viewer of the Latvian Television program Studio 4 was surprised by an advertisement inviting foragers to supply a mushroom (or in English sometimes referred to as a 'toadstool') that usually no one picks - the highly distinctive and toxic 'mušmire' mushroom known in English as 'fly agaric' (Amanita muscaria).
This year, culinary mushroom prices on the open market were sky-high as a result of a dry summer. But who wants poisonous mushrooms?
"There was an advertisement in the district newspaper Liesma about the purchase of mushrooms - fly agarics without stalks," a Valmiera resident said, speaking anonymously for some reason. "For the first time in my sixty or seventy years, I heard that fly agarics were being bought! When I called, they answered me in English, something like: 'No, no, no, no'."
In fact, fly agaric mushrooms come in several different forms, not just the speckled red cap that is best known and instantly recognizable. Some are even more poisonous than the red variety, some less so.
"We have more than 10 species of fly agaric," explained mycologist Inita Dāniele.
Studio 4 decided to call the number offering to buy the potentially deadly fungi to find out why they were wanted.
"Medicine, medicine, only medicine," answered the buyer in fluent Latvian, but also anonymous.
And exactly how could it help? Externally, internally?
"Well, people say [that it can be used] externally: pour on some vodka and do what needs to be done. Pain goes away and you can remove it," said the buyer, though he added that he didn't do anything medical himself and was a just an intermediary.
Indra Vīlistere, an expert of the Pharmacy Museum confirmed that such a folk remedy was indeed known, invlolving the use of fly agaric in a tincture which is rubbed onto a painful area to reduce pain.
"First of all, fresh ones are put on the joints, they say that it hurts less," agrees phytotherapist Arturs Tereško. "If a person also has inflamed areas of the skin, purulent ulcers, then put that red surface on top, tie it, keep it there, and when it dries up, then its work is over."
According to Indra Vīlistere, in the past, fly agaric was used in many different ways, even in very serious cases of illness.
"It was used to help against typhus, against tuberculosis during the war, and there is even a story that during the First World War, when typhus and tuberculosis were very common, it was the doctors who used fly agaric preparations to protect themselves from getting infected," Vīlistere said.
Today, fly agaric is still said to be popular in folk and alternative medicine. However, in the depths of the Internet there is various information about fly agarics, much of it less than scientifically rigorous, including claims that fly agaric powder can be used as a hallucinogen.
While acknowledging that certain cultures have used the mushroom in this way in the past, Tereško stressed the dangers of doing likewise.
"It's dangerous to health, it's actually poisoning - you feel nauseous, sometimes vomiting, and only then does the psychedelic phase come in. There's nothing good there," he said.
However, there is one interesting alternative use for fly agaric he outlined, which relates to its name – 'mušmire' means roughly 'flykiller'.
"You squeeze out the juice from the fly agaric, add sugar, make a sort of syrup, put the plate down, and then the flies suck the sweet mixture and fall asleep and seem to die... It has been observed that they do not actually die, but if they are not thrown out, they wake up after a while."
It is not known precisely what goal the buyers in the Valmiera area had, though Studio 4 noted that in recent years Canada has seen a market develop for fly agaric mushrooms for medical use.