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Danny’s DNA Discoveries – Cortinarius s.l. of the PNW
by Danny Miller

Click here for my Pictorial Key to Cortinarius


Cortinarius (in the broad sense) is the most difficult genus of all. We have more than 400 species of Cortinarius in the PNW, so we're going to have to do things a little differently. It will take years to verify which species are actually here, and even more years to be able to come up with some kind of a key to tell them apart. Cortinarius are recognized by often having a web-like cortina for a partial veil (with one notable exception), orange or rusty tinged brown spores and growing on the ground. Although that doesn't quite always work, many people have learned to spot that they have one, but figuring out which of the more than 400 local species you have is not yet practical. Some are quite beautiful; purple is a very common colour. Hundreds of species are at least partially purple.

Step one for me is to collect all the PNW DNA that I can of Cortinarius with representative photographs. So far, I have a possible ~430 genetic species. Thanks to the great work of Kare Liimatainen and Tuula Niskanen from Finland and our very own Joe Ammirati at UW and their colleagues, Cortinarius has more type sequences available to compare against than many better understood genera. Therefore, I have been able to put names on a great deal of our species, while scores of them are still unnamed. We have also been able to work out the proper section that most species belong in.

A future step will be to collect descriptions of them all and start to learn to tell them apart. I haven't made an attempts to do that yet, but in my pictorial key you will find an incomprehensive and somewhat outdated key to Cortinarius that I will try and keep sporadically updated as new information is learned.

The family Cortinariaceae used to be the catch-all family for every brown spored genus that wasn't distinctive enough to place in an obvious family. Through genetics, we have now sorted out what family most genera are in. What we discovered is that the Cortinariaceae, once the largest dark spored family, became the smallest dark spored family, as in the PNW, literally only Cortinarius was left in the family and nothing else.

Cortinarius in the broad sense was traditionally placed into eight groups or subgenera: Cortinarius, Rozites, Dermocybe, Telamonia, Phlegmacium, Myxacium, Sericeocybe and Leprocybe. Subgenera Cortinarius, Rozites, Dermocybe and Telamonia are still well defined and relatively easy to recognize, but the others have been split into a bunch of new sections.


1. Here is the old way of classifying Cortinarius into subgenera:

  • Cortinarius - one instantly recognizable scaly dark purple species, Cortinarius violaceus.
  • Rozites - Cortinarius caperatus, our species with a membranous ring instead of a web-like cortina.
  • Dermocybe - brightly coloured gills with pigments that can be used to dye clothing. The caps are dry and fibrillose.
  • Telamonia - the hygrophanous, dry capped species and most difficult subgenus, consisting of ~175 species of plain brown mushrooms often with purple tones.
  • Leprocybe - dry capped but not hygrophanous, either scaly or hairy capped species. True Leprocybe glow under UV light.
  • Sericeocybe - silky, satiny caps that are often whitish-lilac-tan.
  • Myxacium - viscid cap and stem mostly with cylindrical stems.
  • Phlegmacium - viscid cap only mostly with clavate or bulbous stems, further split into Phlegmacium (clavate stems), and Bulbopodium and Calochroi (the latter two often with distinct bulbs). The Calochroi also include most somewhat sequestrate species with thick leathery veils).

But now the Finns have finally split the genus into several new genera to try and tame the sheer size of it. Unfortunately, this is somewhat controversial as it can be difficult to tell what genus a species is now in, and many people like to have easier ways of telling genera apart than there are in this case, but that's not always possible. Here is a list of all the genera and as clear an explanation as I can give for all of them.


2. Here is the new way of classifying them:

Cortinarius – this genus still contains most species, and the subgenera/sections are:

  • Cortinarius - still contains Cortinarius violaceus.

  • Paramyxacium (Rozites) - still contains Cortinarius caperatus, but the name of the subgenus has changed from Rozites to Paramyxacium.

  • Dermocybe - the same as the traditional Dermocybe.

  • Telamonia - mostly the same as the traditional Telamonia (dry, hygrophanous caps), except some non hygrophanous dry capped species turned out to be in this section as well (moved from Leprocybe and Sericeocybe) and some hygrophanous capped species were moved out of Telamonia (into Illumini, Iodolentes, and new genus Hygronarius).

  • Leprocybe - was split into Leprocybe, Orellani, Telamonia, new genus Aureonarius (Limoni and Callistei), and new genus Cystinarius (Crassi and Rubicunduli).

  • Sericeocybe - (now called Camphorati) was split into Sericeocybe (Camphorati), Telamonia, and new genus Phlegmacium subgenus Cyanites. Also, some former Myxacium (Emuncti and Delibuti) and former Phlegmacium (Subtorti) live here.

  • Myxacium - as noted above, the Emuncti and Delibuti moved to Sericeocybe (Camphorati). Vibratiles (Ochroleuci) moved into new genus Thaxterogaster.

There are many miscellanous new sections in Cortinarius, such as:

  • Infracti - a few former Phlegmacium

  • Illumini - a few former Telamonia

  • Iodolentes - a few former Telamonia

Of the 9 subgenera above, only Phlegmacium (and some of the segregates from other subgenera) have a new genus.

Phlegmacium – This subgenus is now elevated to genus. It is still contains Phlegmacium and Bulbopodium like it did when it was a subgenus, but not the Calochroi. The problem is Phlegmacium is of neuter gender and Cortinarius is masculine so a WHOLE LOT OF SPECIES NAMES GET A DIFFERENT ENDING. This is the most annoying part. (Think Phlegmacium citrinifolium instead of Cortinarius citrinifolius). Also, the section names (the level underneath subgenus) had to change a bit, so if you were familiar with the old section names, the spellings have also altered. Instead of Glaucocephali they talk about the Glaucocephala, and they say Phlegmacioida instead of Phlegmacioides. Also, think the Cyanicium not the Cyanites. Every time they could create a brand new name for a genus, they picked a word that ended in ‘narius’ to avoid the issue of changing suffixes, but by keeping Phlegmacium, a term most people were already using for these species, this issue exists for this new genus.

  • Phlegmacium has two major subgenera - Phlegmacium and Bulbipodium, roughly corresponding to the old classification, except the Calochroi species of Bulbipodium are now in their own genus, Calonarius, and some other Bulbipodium moved into Thaxterogaster, so you have three places to look for the abruptly bulbous species: Phlegmacium subgenus Bulbipodium, Calonarius, and Thaxterogaster.

  • Phlegmacium subgenus Cyanicium - where the Cyanites now live, formerly in Sericeocybe.

  • Infracti/Subtorti - a few former Phlegmacium stayed in Cortinarius.

  • Thaxterogaster - many former Phelgmacium moved to Thaxterogaster

Calonarius – used for the Calochroi species of former Phlegmacium (which were split from Bulbopodium).

ThaxterogasterThaxterogaster was a genus used for gastroid Cortinarius before they were all moved into Cortinarius (as most gastroid mushrooms have been found to not deserve their own genus, but belong with the similar "normal" mushroom that they evolved from). Thaxterogaster had been therefore abandoned, except the first Thaxterogaster described was in the same genetic clade as a group of Cortinarius that they needed to split into a new genus, so they decided to keep the name Thaxterogaster for that whole branch of the tree. Thaxterogaster includes the Vibratiles (also known as Ochroleuci, split from Myxacium),  as well as Lustrati, Pinophili, Purpurascentes, Turmales, and Vespertini (all split from Phlegmacium), and also Multiformes, Riederi (now Riederorum) and Scauri (all split from Bulbipodium). As you can see, there is a lot of variety of form in this new genus, making it hard to characterize. Any viscid capped species might be here.

Aureonarius – used for the Callistei and Limoni (which were split from Leprocybe). By the rules, they had to make one of the sections have the same name as the genus, in other words there has to be a section Aureonarius. The Limonii are in that section so now they call them section Aureonarius instead of section Limonii.

Hygronarius renidens – this is the only relevant species of ours in this new genus. Cortinarius renidens has an interesting history. It was first described as Gymnopilus terrestris, a Gymnopilus found on the ground, until they remembered that described Cortinarius and then they moved it here. At first they thought it was a Telamonia, since it has a hygrophanous cap, but it is one of the few former Telamonia to be moved.

Cystinarius – used for the species with cystidia (like C. crassi and C. rubicundulus). Similar to what happened in Aureonarius, section Rubicunduli is now called section Cystinarius.

They did a 5 gene study with a few very large sequences. There were previous 4 and 6 gene studies of Phlegmacium, but this is the most genes for the whole genus, so they did something unequivocally useful in this paper which is help figure out where in the tree many species of Cortinarius actually belong.

There are still a handful of species in my spreadsheet that I couldn’t find in their study, so I do not know the subgenus/section. I’ll try and fill those gaps in later by making my own trees.

When you look at my spreadsheet, you will see the name of the species (if known), which of the 9 traditional subgenera it used to be in, the new genus and subgenus/section it has been assigned to post-DNA, links to photographs, and examples of ITS DNA both for our local collections and the type sequences or other reliable sequences when known. Synonyms are given so if you search for a named species, it may be able to tell you the actual name of the species that has been going by that name, if different. Also, I have a bunch of other sequences at the end of species list that are not yet known from the PNW but that I am keeping an eye out for.

Shannon Adams is doing important work on local Cortinarius, and here you will find a link to her page with great photos and descriptions of many local species.

Click here for Shannon's NA Cort page

Click on my Pictorial Key link for the best key and photo review of our species that I have so far, although it is far from complete and only has few of the genetic details found in the spreadsheet.

Click here for my Pictorial Key to Cortinarius


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