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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 I haven't made an attempts to do that yet, but in my pictorial key you will find an incomprehensive and somewhat outdated key to Cortinarius that I will try and keep sporadically updated as new information is learned.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. 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.

  • Rozites - Cortinarius caperatus, our species with a membranous ring instead of a web-like cortina.
  • Cortinarius - one instantly recognizable scaly dark purple species, Cortinarius violaceus.
  • 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 mainly of plain brown mushrooms often with purple tones. Very few species have had to be moved from Telamonia.
  • Leprocybe - scaly or hairy capped species now split into Leprocybe, Callistei, Limonii, Crassi, Orellani and Cortinarius (our beautiful purple velvet Cortinarius). Some turned out to belong in Telamonia. Leprocybe glow under UV light.
  • Sericeocybe - silky, satiny caps that are often whitish-lilac-tan, now split into Sericeocybe and Cyanites. Many turned out to belong in Telamonia.
  • Myxacium - viscid cap and stem mostly with cylindrical stems, now split into Myxacium, Delibuti and Ochroleuci.
  • Phlegmacium - viscid cap only mostly with clavate stems, now split into Phlegmacium, Bulbopodium and Calochroi (the latter two often with distinct bulbs, with the Calochroi also including most somewhat sequestrate species with thick leathery veils). Also split off from Phlegmacium are many new sections difficult to distinguish: Infracti, Lustrati, Multiformes, Purpurascentes, Riederi, Scauri, Subtorti, Turmalis and many more still to come.

The latest Cortinarius news, and why I say I have been talking about Cortinarius in the broad sense so far, is that 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.

Cortinarius – this genus still contains most species. The species in subgenera Dermocybe, Telamonia, Rozites and Cortinarius are still in this genus. The species in the core of Leprocybe, Camphorati (their new name for Sericeocybe), and Myxacium that remained in those subgenera and were not split out are also all still in Cortinarius. 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. 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.

That leaves the many species that got moved out of one of the subgenera over the years into new places.

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.

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 (split from Myxacium),  as well as Multiformes, Purpurascentes, Riederi, and Scauri (all split from Phlegmacium) and a few others. Section Riederi is now called section Riederorum.

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.

Calonarius – used for the Calochroi (which were split from Bulbopodium)

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 some species of Cortinarius actually belong, namely:

- the Delibuti (split from Myxacium) used to be in their own section, but now they think they’re part of subgenus Sericeocybe (which they now call Camphorati).

- the Cyanites (now Cyanicium) seem to be inside Phlegmacium now and not off on their own. They are not usually viscid but they can be.

- for some reason the Obtusi (one of the few sections split from Telamonia) are now in section Iodolentes of Cortinarius instead of in their own section Obtusi, as they have recently been regarded.

There are still a handful of species in my spreadsheet that I couldn’t find in their study, so I do not know which genus they are in. There are another few where I know the genus, but not 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 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.

My spreadsheet still uses the genus Cortinarius for everything, but in column M you will find the new genus the Finns have assigned (for those that moved), and column N shows the subgenus/section they place it in (with the old subgenus/section given afterwards in brackets if it is one of the few cases where they changed a section name). For instance Cortinarius limonius is shown in column N as subgenus/section "Aureonarius (Limonii)”.

Click here to download my Cortinarius spreadsheet

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 incomplete and does not have all the genetic details found in the spreadsheet.

Click here for my Pictorial Key to Cortinarius


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