|Major Groups > Gilled Mushrooms > Dark-Spored > Cortinarius|
The Genus Cortinarius
[ Basidiomycetes > Agaricales > Cortinariaceae . . . ]
by Michael Kuo
Cortinarius is the largest genus of mushrooms in the world, containing an astounding number of species (often estimated well over a thousand). Although the mushrooms in Cortinarius are very diverse, it is usually pretty easy to figure out when you are looking at one, once you get the hang of it. First, they have cortinas covering their gills when young (hence the name of the genus); sometimes the tiny fibers of the cortina are ephemeral and disappear, but they frequently collapse against the stem to create a ring zone. Secondly, the spore print is rusty brown and, as a result of the rusty brown spores, the mature gills of Cortinarius mushrooms are usually also rusty brown. Finally, they are terrestrial and mycorrhizal, so you will only find them in association with trees.
But while the genus may be more or less easy to identify, figuring out what species of Cortinarius you have found may be one of the most difficult challenges in mushroom mycology, compounded by the fact that there are few (if any) comprehensive, current and reliable keys available for North America. One is often forced to use European treatments (see especially Hansen & Knudsen, Moser, and Breitenbach & Kränzlin in the references list below) and adopt a "best-fit" attitude. In short, identifying a Cortinarius to species is often best described as a Quixotic endeavor--or maybe not; Don Quixote did manage to accomplish a thorough assault on a windmill, which is more "accomplishment" than one often achieves with Cortinarius identification (see my unidentified collections, for example).
Traditionally the genus Cortinarius has been divided into a handful of subgenera, based on physical features like the sliminess of the cap and/or stem, the shape of the stem base, and whether or not the cap is hygrophanous; see the extended discussion of these features below. However, DNA-based study of the genus has begun to question at least some of the divisions between the traditional subgenera, and it appears that while examination of these physical features will undoubtedly assist in future Cortinarius identification, correspondence among these features may not necessarily indicate genetic relationships. Importantly, however, DNA-based study of the genus is in its infancy; as the authors of one fairly recent study carefully point out, "[r]esearch on the molecular systematics of Cortinarius, a species-rich mushroom genus with nearly global distribution, is just beginning" (Peintner and collaborators, 2004). A DNA study by Niskanen and collaborators (2011) of the Cortinarius armillatus group in northern Europe sets a wonderful example for future researchers about the diligence and patience required to draw conclusions about species and their distribution; the authors examined and sequenced 1,000 specimens before drawing any conclusions!
Cortinarius Identification Features
Since members of the genus Cortinarius are mycorrhizal, they have evolved with their symbionts and therefore occupy limited ecological niches. Because some, if not all, species are partial to particular trees or groups of related trees, careful ecological field notes and documentation are a must when collecting Cortinarius specimens for identification, especially when collecting in notoriously "mixed" woods like montane, boreal, or coastal ecosystems. In northern Michigan, for example, I have found Cortinarius armillatus, which is an obligate associate of birch, in woods that appeared to be composed only of aspens, hemlock, and balsam fir . . . only to return to the location and discover a tiny, three-foot birch sapling a few feet away from my collection location.
Most keys to the genus begin with slime. Does your mushroom have a slimy cap? A slimy stem? Your answers to these questions lead you to two of the traditional subgenera: Myxacium (cap and stem slimy) and Phlegmacium (cap slimy, stem dry). When you are collecting in normal conditions and your specimens are fresh, assessing the "slime factor" is usually pretty easy. Species in Myxacium have a "slime veil"--a universal veil that consists of slime, kind of like the volva on an Amanita but more disgusting. As the mushroom grows, the slime veil breaks, leaving slime on the cap and on the lower stem.
The problems come when you are collecting in dry conditions, or your specimens have dried out after being picked. In this case it is sometimes possible to judge a mushroom's former sliminess by inspecting the debris that may have adhered to the cap surface as a result of being embedded in gluten that later dried out. Ultimately, however, microscopic examination may be required: Cortinarius species with slimy caps have an "ixocutis" (Mycologese for "slimy skin") in which the hyphae of the cap surface are embedded in a gelatinous matrix.
Yeah, that's not a word. Hygrophanity? Anyway, a "hygrophanous" cap is one that fades markedly as it dries out, often resulting in a substantial color change and, if you're there at the right time, "two-toned" specimens in a transition stage. The traditional subgenus Telamonia is (in part) separated on the basis of the hygrophanous caps of the species.
By maturity most species of Cortinarius develop the characteristic rusty brown gills of the genus. But in the button stage gill color is very variable, and determining the color of the young gills is often essential in identifying Cortinarius collections. This means you will need to have young specimens in your collection--perhaps even specimens in the button stage, before the cap has opened.
The base of the stem is another important feature in Cortinarius identification--which means you will need to be careful to preserve it when collecting; it is often necessary to dig up Cortinarius specimens with a knife. The stem may be more or less equal, or club-shaped ("clavate" in Mycologese), or swollen dramatically and suddenly at the base, so that the basal bulb has a rim (in which case the bulb is said to be "marginate"). Additionally the disposition of the cortina on the mature stem can be important in identification: has a ring zone resulted from the collapse of the cortina, or did it disappear? Universal veil remnants are also sometimes present on the stem, creating a sheathed ("peronate") appearance, as though the stem is wearing a tight-fitting sock.
Several species and species groups in Cortinarius possess distinctive odors. This is best assessed with fresh collections (preferably in the field) that have been sliced in half. Odors in the genus include: radishlike ("raphanoid"), sweetly and strongly fragrant, iodine-like, and flat-out foul. Taste is occasionally important as well--but only experienced mushroom identifiers should taste species of Cortinarius, since many species are seriously toxic. Distinctive tastes include a radishlike taste and, especially, bitterness.
Many species in the genus have distinctive reactions to potassium hydroxide. Apply a fairly strong (5-15%) aqueous solution to both the cap surface and the sliced flesh in order to assess any color changes. Meinhard Moser (see 1983, for example) used the reaction of the flesh to KOH to help arrange the genus taxonomically--and while most mycologists are not willing to go quite this far, there is no denying the utility of a KOH test in much of Cortinarius identification.
Microscopic examination is generally required for identification of all but a few "field guide species" in the genus. Spore morphology is probably the most crucial among the microfeatures; spore shape, size, and the degree of ornamentation (from nearly smooth to strongly verrucose) can all be important in identification. Ideally, spores should be measured from a spore print so that they are unquestionably mature. A Roman aqueduct section, mounted in 2% KOH, will suffice for studying other microscopic features important in Cortinarius, which include the pileipellis (see the discussion and illustration above, under "Sliminess"), the presence or absence of clamp connections, and cystidia on the gills. Impressive, well defined cystidia are almost never heard of in Cortinarius (Cortinarius violaceus is virtually the only exception), but some species possess cylindrical to club-shaped cheilocystidia--sometimes designated as "marginal cells" when they are so inconspicuous as to be unworthy of a full-blown "cheilocystidia" designation (yes, the distinction is frustrating, and no, authors do not use these terms consistently and universally).
Ammirati, J. F. & Smith, A. H. (1969). Studies in the genus Cortinarius, I: Section Dermocybe, Cortinarius aureifolius complex. The Michigan Botanist 8: 175-180.
Ammirati, J. F. (1972). The section Dermocybe of Cortinarius. Ph. D. thesis, University of Michigan. 282 pp.
Ammirati, J. F. & Smith, A. H. (1972). Studies in the genus Cortinarius, II: Section Dermocybe, new and interesting species from Michigan. The Michigan Botanist 11: 13-25.
Ammirati, J. F. (1975). Cortinarius, section Dermocybe-–Cortinarius clelandii. Mycotaxon 3: 95-101
Ammirati, J. F. & Smith, A. H. (1977). Studies in the genus Cortinarius, III: Section Dermocybe, new North American species. Mycotaxon 5: 381-397.
Ammirati, J. F. & A. H. Smith (1978). Studies in the genus Cortinarius, IV: Section Dermocybe, new North American species. Mycotaxon 7: 256-264.
Ammirati, J. F. & H. E. Bigelow (1984). Cortinarius iodes versus Cortinarius heliotropicus. Mycotaxon 20: 461-471.
Ammirati, J. F. & Smith, A. H. (1984). Cortinarius II: A preliminary treatment of species in the subgenus Dermocybe, section Sanguinei, in North America, north of Mexico. McIlvainea 6: 54-64.
Ammirati, J. F. (1988). Dermocybe (or Cortinarius, subgenus Dermocybe): Some species in the sections Dermocybe, Holoxanthae, and Malicoriae. McIlvainea 8: 48-59.
Ammirati, J. F. (1988). Dermocybe (Cortinariaceae, Agaricales): North American names - new combinations, synonyms, and notes. Mycotaxon 33: 437-446.
Ammirati, J. F. (1989). Dermocybe, subgenus Dermocybe, section Sanguineae in northern California. Mycotaxon 34: 21-36.
Ammirati, J. F., K. W. Hughes, K. Liimatainen, T. Niskanen & P. B. Matheny (2012). Cortinarius hesleri from eastern North America and related species from Europe and western North America. Botany 91: 91–98.
Brandrud, T. E., H. Lindström, H. Marklund, J. Melot & S. Muskos (1990). Cortinarius: Flora Photographica. Volume 1. Matfors, Sweden: Cortinarius HB.
Brandrud, T. E., H. Lindström, H. Marklund, J. Melot & S. Muskos (1992). Cortinarius: Flora Photographica. Volume 2. Matfors, Sweden: Cortinarius HB.
Brandrud, T. E., H. Lindström, H. Marklund, J. Melot & S. Muskos (1994). Cortinarius: Flora Photographica. Volume 3. Matfors, Sweden: Cortinarius HB.
Breitenbach, J. & F. Kränzlin (2000). Fungi of Switzerland: A contribution to the knowledge of the fungal flora of Switzerland. Volume 5. Agarics Part 3. Cortinariaceae. Lucerne: Edition Mykologia. 338 p.
Cripps, C. L. & Miller, O. K. Jr. (1994). A new Cortinarius from a mature aspen stand in Montana. Mycotaxon 50: 315-321.
Froslev, T. G., T. S. Jeppesen & T. Laessoe. (2006). Seven new calochroid and fulvoid species of Cortinarius. Mycological Research 110: 1046-1058.
Garnica, S., M. Weiss, B. Oertel & F. Oberwinkler (2003). Phylogenetic relationships of European Phlegmacium species (Cortinarius, Agaricales). Mycologia 95: 1155-1170.
Garnica, S., P. Spahn, B. Oertel, J. Ammirati & F. Oberwinkler (2011). Tracking the evolutionary history of Cortinarius species in section Calochroi, with transoceanic disjunct distributions. Evolutionary Biology 11: 213.
Hansen, L. & Knudsen, H., eds. (1992). Nordic macromycetes Vol. 2: Polyporales, Boletales, Agaricales, Russulales. Copenhagen: Nordsvamp. 474 pp.
Hoiland, K. & Holst-Jensen, A. (2000). Cortinarius phylogeny and possible taxonomic implications of ITS rDNA sequences. Mycologia 92: 694-710.
Judge, B. S., J. F. Ammirati, G. H. Lincoff, J. H. Trestrail III & P. B. Matheny (2010). Ingestion of a newly described North American mushroom species from Michigan resulting in chronic renal failure: Cortinarius orellanosus. Clinical Toxicology 48: 545-549.
Kauffman, C. H. (1906). Cortinarius as a mycorhiza-producing fungus. Botanical Gazette 42: 208-214.
Kauffman, C.H. (1918). The gilled mushrooms (Agaricaceae) of Michigan and the Great Lakes region, Volumes I and II. New York: Dover. 924 pp. (1971 Reprint.)
Kauffman, C. H. (1932). Cortinarius. North American Flora 10: 282-348.
Knudsen, H. & J. Vesterholt, eds. (2008). Funga Nordica: Agaricoid, boletoid and cyphelloid genera. Copenhagen: Nordsvamp. 965 pp.
Liu, Y., S. O. Rogers, J. F. Ammirati & G. Keller (1995). Dermocybe, section Sanguineae: A look at species relationships within the sanguinea complex. Sydowia 10: 142–154.
Liu, Y. J., S. O. Rogers & J. F. Ammirati (1997). Phylogenetic relationships in Dermocybe and related Cortinarius taxa based on nuclear ribosomal DNA internal transcribed spacers. Canadian Journal of Botany 75: 519–532.
Moser, M. (1983). Keys to Agarics and Boleti (Polyporales, Boletales, Agaricales, Russulales). Ed. Kibby, G. Transl. Plant, S. London: Roger Phillips. 535 pp.
Moser, M. (1993). Studies on North American Cortinarii. III. The Cortinarius flora of dwarf and shrubby Salix associations in the alpine zone of the Windriver Mountains, Wyoming, USA. Sydowia 45: 275-306.
Moser, M. M., K. H. McKnight & J. F. Ammirati (1995). Studies on North American Cortinarii I. New and interesting taxa from the greater Yellowstone area. Mycotaxon 55: 301-346.
Moser, M. M. & Ammirati, J. F. (1996). Studies in North American Cortinarii II. Interesting and new species collected in the North Cascade Mountains, Washington. Mycotaxon 58: 387-412.
Moser, M. M. & J. F. Ammirati (1997). Studies on North American Cortinarii IV. New and interesting Cortinarius species (subgenus Phlegmacium) from oak forests in northern California. Sydowia 49: 25-48.
Moser, M. M. & J. F. Ammirati (1999). Studies in North American Cortinarii V. New and interesting Phlegmacia from Wyoming and the Pacific Northwest. Mycotaxon 72: 289-321.
Moser, M. M. (2002). Studies in the North American Cortinarii VII. New and interesting species of Cortinarius subgen. Telamonia (Agaricales, Basidiomycotina) from the Rocky Mountains. Feddes Repertorium 113: 48-62.
Niskanen, T. (2008). Cortinarius subgenus Telamonia in North Europe. Doctoral dissertation, University of Helsinki. Helsinki, Finland. Available online: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-10-4446-5.
Niskanen, T., I. Kytovuori & K. Liimatainen (2011). Cortinarius sect. Armillati in northern Europe. Mycologia 103: 1080-1101.
Niskanen, T., I. Kytövuori, E. Bendiksen, K. Bendiksen, T. E. Brandbrud, T. G. Frøslev, K. Høiland, T. S. Jeppesen, K. Liimatainen & H. Lindström (2018). Cortinarius (Pers.) Gray. In Knudsen, H. & J. Vesterholt, eds. (2018). Funga Nordica: Agaricoid, boletoid, clavarioid, cyphelloid and gastroid genera. Copenhagen: Nordsvamp. 762–885.
Peintner, U., E. Horak, M. Moser & R. Vilgalys (2002). Phylogeny of Rozites, Cuphocybe and Rapacea inferred from ITS and LSU rDNA sequences. Mycologia 94: 620-629.
Peintner, U., M. Moser & R. Vilgalys (2002). Thaxterogaster is a taxonomic synonym of Cortinarius: New names and new combinations. Mycotaxon 81: 177-184.
Peintner, U., M. Moser & R. Vilgalys (2002). Rozites, Cuphocybe and Rapacea are taxonomic synonyms of Cortinarius: New combinations and new names. Mycotaxon 83: 447-451.
Peintner, U., Moncalvo, J. M., & Vilgalys, R. (2004). Toward a better understanding of the infrageneric relationships in Cortinarius (Agaricales, Basidiomycota). Mycologia 96: 1042-1058.
Phillips, R. (1986). A provisional multi-access key to American species of Cortinarius, Inoloma & Telemonia (including Leprocybe, Sericeocybe and Hydrocybe). Published by the author. 45 pp.
Seidl, M. T. (2000). Phylogenetic relationships within Cortinarius subgenus Myxacium, sections Defibulati and Myxacium. Mycologia 92: 1091-1102.
Smith, A. H. (1939). Studies in the genus Cortinarius I. Contributions from the University of Michigan Herbarium 2. 43 pp.
Smith, A. H. (1942). New and unusual Cortinarii from Michigan, with a key to the North American species of subgenus Bulbopodium. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 69: 44-64.
Smith, A. H. & L. R. Hesler (1943). New and interesting agarics from Tennessee and North Carolina. Lloydia 6: 248-266.
Smith, A. H. (1944). New and interesting Cortinarii from North America. Lloydia 7: 163-235.
Smith, A. H. & Trappe, J. M. (1972). The higher fungi of Oregon’s Cascade Head Experimental Forest and vicinity - I. The genus Phaeocollybia (Agaricales) and notes and descriptions of other species in the Agaricales. Mycologia 64: 1138-1153.
Soop, K. (1993). On Cortinarius in boreal pine forests. Agarica 12: 101-116.
This site contains no information about the edibility or toxicity of mushrooms.
Cite this page as:
Kuo, M. (2011, December). The genus Cortinarius. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/cortinarius.html