Liberty Cap Mushrooms: Look-Alikes, Identification & More
What is a liberty cap? Put simply, it is a species of psilocybin mushroom, known as Psilocybe semilanceata. Liberty caps are one of the most widely popular psilocybin mushrooms in nature and one of the most potent. They have a recognizable appearance (reflected in the name “liberty cap”), and the first documented account of their psychoactive effects is an interesting one.
In this guide on liberty caps, we will look at the various aspects of these common and potent psilocybin mushrooms, including how you can identify them.
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Contents of this article
The History Of Liberty Caps
The history of liberty caps begins with the first recorded account of their psychoactive effects. On October 3, 1799, Dr. Everard Brande was called to the London home of a poor family who was experiencing an array of symptoms. They felt they had been poisoned.
Brande wrote a full description of the incident for the Medical and Physical Journal. The father of the family, who Brande identified as “J.S.”, had begun his day as usual in the Autumn. He went down to Green Park at dawn to collect small field mushrooms to serve to his family for breakfast as part of a broth.
But, about an hour after their breakfast, the family developed some strange and alarming symptoms. “J.S.” developed vertigo, a loss of balance, and black spots spreading across his vision. The rest of the family complained of poisoning, stomach cramps, and their extremities becoming cold. The father left the house to get some help. But within a few hundred yards, he fell into a confused state, having forgotten where he was going and why.
When Dr. Brande arrived, the family’s symptoms were ebbing and flowing.
They would experience intense symptoms, return to normal, and then develop their symptoms again. The family was convinced they were dying, except for the eight-year-old son, Edward, who had taken the largest dose of mushrooms.
He “was attacked with fits of immoderate laughter”, from which neither his father nor mother could calm him down. The doctor observed that Edward’s pupils were extremely dilated and that he was speaking nonsense.
Brande was unaware of the exact species of mushroom that had caused these symptoms. It was not until the early 1960s that the compound responsible for the effects of the mushroom, Psilocybe semilanceata, were discovered.
The species responsible was matched to an illustration of the small mushroom by the botanical artist James Sowerby, found in his book Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms (1803). The artist had read the account from Brande and drew the mushrooms he thought were responsible.
The Swedish mycologist and botanist Elias Magnus Fries first described the species as Agaricus semilanceatus in his 1838 work Epicrisis Systematis Mycologici.
The German scientist Paul Kummer transferred the species to the genus Psilocybe in 1871.
The Danish mycologist Jakob Emanuel Lange named the species Panaeolus semilanceatus in 1936, which later became a synonym for the species.
Chemist Albert Hofmann, mycologist Roger Heim, and lab technician Hans Tscherter reported the presence of Psilocybin in P. semilanceata in 1963.
How Liberty Caps Got Their Name
The mushroom takes its common name from the Phrygian cap, also known as the “liberty cap”, which it resembles. The original liberty cap was a hat worn by freed slaves in the Roman world to mark their status. They were no longer property but not truly “free”. The hat was a symbol of both pride and shame.
Marcus Junius Brutus, who was involved in the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, minted coins to advertise his part in the deed. The coin bore the abbreviation “EID MAR”, which stands for the Ides of March, the day Caesar had been assassinated. The coin also features a pair of daggers and the distinctive liberty cap. The cap then became an elite political symbol, employed by emperors to stress the freedom that their absolute rule allowed them to enjoy.
In the 16th century, awareness of the liberty cap resurfaced with a growing interest in — and emulation of — Roman antiquity. When the Dutch drove out the Spanish from Holland in 1577, coins featuring the liberty cap were minted. William of Orange also minted coins bearing the liberty cap to commemorate his seizure of the English throne in 1688.
It wasn’t until the two great republican revolutions of the 18th century (the French and American revolutions) that the liberty cap became a popular icon. It blended with the visual form of the more ancient Phrygian cap and became not just a symbol but an actual item of headwear or decoration. Adrastos Omissi, a lecturer in Latin Literature at the University of Glasgow, writes the following.
“In France, on June 20 1790, an armed mob stormed the royal apartments in the Tuileries and forced Louis XVI (later to be executed by the revolutionaries) to don the liberty cap. Revolutionary groups in America declared their rebellion against British rule by raising a liberty cap upon a pole in the public squares of their towns. In 1781 a medal, designed by no less than Benjamin Franklin to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Libertas Americana (the personification of American Liberty) is depicted with wild, free-flowing hair, the pole and cap of liberty slung across her shoulder.”
The liberty cap later became associated with the species Psilocybe semilanceata. In 1812, the English poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Omniana, a two-volume collection of table talk and musings. The two report the following.
“There is a common fungus, which so exactly represents the pole and cap of liberty, that it seems offered by nature herself as the appropriate emblem of Gallic republicanism, — mushroom patriots, with a mushroom cap of liberty.”
They did not identify the precise mushroom they had in mind here.
However, in later mycological handbooks, Psilocybe semilanceata was identified as the liberty cap.
In 1894, the English botanist and mycologist Mordecai Cooke published his book Edible and Poisonous Mushroom, in which he refers to Psilocybe semilanceata as the “cap of liberty”.
The Appearance Of Liberty Caps Mushrooms
As well as resembling the famed cap, there are other aspects of the appearance of liberty caps that you should know about. These features will help you identify them. This species is more or less indistinguishable from Psilocybe pelliculosa. The latter differs in that it has smaller spores.
Liberty Cap Identification
- Spores: Liberty cap spores are ellipsoidal and smooth.
- Taste and Odor: Farinaceous (like freshly ground flour).
Liberty Cap Mushroom Look-Alikes
There are some liberty cap lookalikes you should be aware of. These include Panaeolus semiovatus (the Dung Roundhead), which is usually larger and does not have a pointed cap, and Panaeolina foenisecii (the Brown Mottlegill), which is very similar in color but is usually larger and does not have a pointed cap.
Where Do Liberty Caps Grow?
Liberty caps grow solitarily or in groups on rich and acidic soil, usually in grasslands, such as meadows, pastures, or lawns. You can often find these mushrooms in pastures, where sheep and cow dung fertilize the soil. However, the mushrooms do not grow directly on the dung as Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms do.
The Mexican mycologist (and Psilocybe authority) Gastón Guzmán wrote in his 1983 monograph on psilocybin mushrooms that liberty caps are the world’s most widespread psilocybin mushroom species. This is because it is in a large number of countries, with widespread distribution in Europe — where they are thought to be a native species.
One can find liberty caps in the following countries.
- The Channel Islands
- Czech Republic
- The Faroe Islands
- The Netherlands
- The United Kingdom
Liberty caps also have a wide distribution in North America. In Canada, you can find them in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, and Quebec.
In the U.S., liberty caps most commonly grow in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascade Mountains. They grow abundantly in autumn and early winter in these locations. Are these mushrooms found at all in the South? Do liberty caps grow in Florida, for instance? The answer to both questions is no, unfortunately, although other psychedelic mushrooms can be found in Florida and elsewhere in the South.
The species is much less common in South America, with the mushroom being found in Chile. It is found in Tasmania and New Zealand, where it can be found growing from high-altitude grasslands to sea level.
A Potent Psilocybin Mushroom
Liberty caps are one of the most potent psilocybin mushrooms that exist.
The German chemist Jochen Gartz, in 1993, reported an average of 1 percent psilocybin in dried specimens of Psilocybe semilanceata, ranging from at least 0.2 percent to a maximum of 2.37 percent (the highest psilocybin concentration reported for a mushroom).
On average, Psilocybe azurenscens (considered the most potent psilocybin mushroom) contains more psilocybin (1.78 percent). Smaller specimens of liberty caps usually have the highest concentrations of psilocybin. However, the absolute amount is higher in larger mushrooms.
It’s important to be aware of the high potency of liberty caps before deciding to consume them. One needs to consume a lower dosage of liberty caps in comparison to Psilocybe cubensis in order to reach the same intensity of subjective effects.
So, you may be wondering how many liberty caps to eat if you want a light, medium, or strong trip. We would generally recommend 0.5-1 g, 1-2 g, and 2-4 g, respectively.
Common FAQs About Liberty Caps
Growing liberty cap mushrooms is incredibly difficult because they require decaying grass roots in order to grow. Ultimately, creating the ideal environment to grow liberty cap mushrooms is a challenging task, so foraging for them in grassy patches of land is much easier.
Liberty cap mushrooms are not poisonous, and they are edible. However, there are some reports of hospitalization after ingesting liberty caps. As potent psychedelic mushrooms, liberty cap mushrooms have the same psychoactive compounds as other magic mushrooms containing psilocybin and psilocin.
The first step to identifying liberty cap mushrooms is knowing where and when to look for them. Liberty cap mushrooms grow in the fall and spring in grassy areas like lawns, meadows, and fields. The next step in identifying liberty caps is knowing potential lookalikes in your region, especially ones that may be poisonous.
Finally, you need to know what to look for in the mushroom’s cap, gills, and stem.
The cap of liberty cap mushrooms measures between 0.2 to 1 inch in diameter. It can vary in color depending on moisture, but is usually a cream or brown color with a pronounced bump on the top that looks pimple-like. The cap also has striations that are more obvious as the mushroom gets older and in dry conditions. The gills of the liberty cap are narrow, densely formed, and an olive gray hue. As the spores mature the gills turn a more purple or black color. The liberty cap stem is usually between 2 and 4 inches in height and 0.04 to 0.14 inches in diameter. It’s a cream color and can have a blue tinge near the base of the stem. The stem is very slender and can be wavy, but its fibrous nature makes it quite strong unlike that of lookalikes. Liberty cap mushrooms have a musty scent.