Just like at the grocery store, mushrooms of the ‘magic’ variety come in many different shapes, colours, and sizes. The most common is Psilocybe cubensis, also known as “cubes”, “golden tops”, or simply “magic mushrooms.”
There are over 180 different species of mushrooms that contain psilocybin, the compound that makes these fungi magic. Psilocybin can comprise up to 2% of the overall weight of a dried mushroom and is named after the largest group of psychedelic mushrooms, the Psilocybe genus. The compounds were originally researched, synthesized and named by Albert Hofmann, better known as the ‘inventor’ of LSD or “acid.”
Species of magic mushrooms
The original chemistry conducted by Albert Hofmann used samples of Ps. mexicana, a magic mushroom bought from the Amazon rainforest. This particular species has a history spanning millennia, used as a sacred tool by the Nahuatl people — better known as the Aztecs. To them, it was called teonanacatl, or “flesh of the Gods.” They were consumed fresh or dried, sometimes mixed into honey or chocolate for ceremonies or feasts.
With magic mushrooms growing wild on nearly every continent, histories like these are suspected and evidenced around the world. Druidic peoples from Ireland are said to have used the “liberty cap”, or Ps. semilanceata — a species common throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They also consumed an entirely different type of magic mushroom, the iconic red and white-speckled “fly agaric” or Amanita muscaria, that shares the same northern range.
The latter — enshrined in pop-culture as the mushroom from the Mario series — can cause hallucinations and stupor but does not contain psilocybin. It contains an unrelated, psychoactive chemical that may be neurotoxic under certain conditions; these “magic mushrooms” should be avoided at all costs, except under the watchful eye of trained guides.
The many strains of Psilocybe cubensis
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that Ps. cubensis began to amass its enduring fame. Before this time, most of the mushrooms that helped to power the counter-culture movement of the 1960s were harvested from the wild. Species like Ps. cyanescens and Ps. allenii grew readily from the wood-chips that covered flower-beds and paths within the parks of San Fransisco.
The publication of Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide by the McKenna brothers in 1976 brought magic mushrooms — Ps. cubensis, specifically — indoors and readily cultivated in bulk. Much like cannabis, this move provoked selective breeding and the creation of unique strains and cultivars of cubensis. While the evidence isn’t yet there to support it, many claim that strains have their own distinct personality that can influence your psychedelic trip.
Strains or species, they’re all magic mushrooms
It’s relatively easy to tell species from strains: species will have “binomial” (two-part) names of Greek or Latin origin (Psilocybe cubensis, for example), while strains often have light-hearted or descriptive names like ‘Golden Teacher’ or ‘Penis Envy’. In most cases, “shrooms are shrooms” and contain psilocybin nonetheless, in relatively consistent quantities.
As always, proceed with caution and moderate doses whenever you’re trying a new batch, strain, or species.