As you know if you know anything about video games, mushrooms are a common theme in the Super Mario universe. The setting for the original game was the Mushroom Kingdom, Peach was originally called Princess Toadstool, etc. And, of course, Mario and Luigi gain their powers of growth and extra life collection by eating mushrooms. But the key question is: what kind of mushrooms are they eating? This is the question all of the main scientists are now asking.
First, two assumptions: 1) they really are eating these mushrooms. When a game shows your character punching a box and absorbing the turkey leg that invariably springs out of it, it’s implied that he is eating it, and I’m going to say the same goes for the Mario games. And 2) that the mushrooms are ones that exist in real life on Earth, because otherwise the answer would be that the mushrooms are some mysterious alien species. That’s too easy of an answer and I refuse to accept it.
First: the Super Mushroom. This is the very first powerup in the Mario series. Even your grandma got this one. This mushroom has the power to make Mario or Luigi grow in size, allowing them to take one hit from an enemy before getting killed. That’s definitely an amazing mushroom. But what sort of mushroom could have such an effect?
Here’s the same mushroom in Super Mario Bros. 3. Here we can see that the mushroom has changed color from beige with red spots to white with red spots. It has also gained a face. And starting with Super Mario World, the colors were reversed to white spots on a red cap, which is how the mushroom has looked since.
The Super Mushroom’s new look sheds light on its identity. It has to be the amanita muscaria, a/k/a fly agaric.
Amanita muscaria is well known in popular culture for being one of those “trippy” mushrooms, the kind that make you have hallucinations. These particular mushrooms are full of muscimol, a psychoactive compound that causes “effects… from nausea and twitching to drowsiness, cholinergic crisis-like effects (low blood pressure, sweating and salivation), auditory and visual distortions, mood changes, euphoria, relaxation, ataxia, and loss of equilibrium.” (thanks Wikipedia.) Apparently Siberians have been eating these for centuries to have religious experiences. Eating the flesh of the amanita muscaria can also reportedly cause micropsia, a condition in which objects appear smaller than they really are, making the subject feel larger as a consequence (see also Alice in Wonderland.) hmmmm.
It should be noted that amanita muscaria is not advisable to eat, as it apparently causes a lot of unpredictable side effects and could potentially kill someone, though this is very rare. It’s also not the “shroom” of popular recreational use; that’s a totally different mushroom that I know absolutely nothing about. No, nothing at all.
So, you know, don’t eat fly agaric, unless you really know what you’re doing. You’re not Mario, you won’t grow into a giant and gain brick-breaking powers anyway.
Second, we have the amazing…
1-Up Mushroom. This white green-spotted mushroom gives Mario or Luigi an extra life, allowing him to return from the dead. This is truly a wonderful mushroom, the closest we’ll ever get to the root of immortality that Gilgamesh found and lost all those thousands of years ago.
Unfortunately, though, this mushroom doesn’t actually seem to exist. Searching for “green mushroom” either leads to info about Mario’s 1-up mushroom or to such recipes as “green bean and portobello mushroom sauté.” Which admittedly sounds delicious, but it’s not quite what we’re looking for.
The closest thing I found to an actual green mushroom is the mycena chlorophos, a bioluminescent mushroom that emits a pale green light. However, the mushroom itself is not green. Moreover, nobody seems to know if it’s edible, presumably because nobody has ever been hungry enough to try to eat a glowing mushroom.
Finally, there’s the third, too often overlooked mushroom of the Mario universe. This is the Poison Mushroom. This first appeared in the Japan-only original Super Mario Bros. 2, in keeping with that game’s reputation as way harder and cheaper than the first.
This mushroom looks like it could be any number of types. In fact, the Poison Mushroom of the Mario universe itself has changed its look several times. This may be an acknowledgement of the sheer number and variety of poisonous mushrooms in the world. There are many species that amateurs and even experts are advised to avoid because of their similarities to poisonous species. One example is the family of white mushrooms known as the “destroying angels.”
The poisonous amanita mushrooms seem to be the most dangerous because of their similarity to plenty of other edible, even really good-tasting, mushrooms. It’s believed the Roman Emperor Claudius was killed, probably in an assassination, by a plate of destroying angels fried in butter. Unfortunately for him, and for Mario if he ever runs into one, these mushrooms are packed full of α-amanitin, a compound that causes liver failure and death when ingested.
If there’s any lesson that the Mario series teaches us, aside from avoiding giant turtle monsters, it is that we should be careful about eating mushrooms, even the ones that might give us hallucinations or super powers. For my part, I’m going to stick with the boring regular mushrooms sold at the grocery store.
Note to the reader: if you’re a real mycologist and not just some asshole who looked at Wikipedia and Google (i.e. me) then I’m sorry about this post, because it probably looks pretty stupid to you. On the other hand, if you know a thing about mushrooms and have some useful information, please post a comment!