Toxic Fungi of Western North America

by Thomas J. Duffy, MD

Delayed renal failure with Cortinarius species

The genus Cortinarius, although having no choice edibles, had no significant poisonings attributed to it until a mass poisoning of 102 people occurred in Poznan, Poland in 1952. Stanislaw Grzymala, an epidemiologist, identified the offender as Cortinarius orellanus Fr. (120) An unusual cluster of symptoms was usually present in addition to very mild GI symptoms: decreased kidney function with increased urination, intense thirst, marked dryness and burning of the mouth. Some cases progressed to terminal renal failure. Eleven deaths ensued despite renal dialysis. This startling epidemic had a very marked delay in onset of symptoms—from 2 days to 3 weeks. As with amanitin poisoning, early appearance of symptoms usually indicated more severe toxicity. In 1959, Dr. Grzymala reviewed signs and symptoms in 132 Cortinarius orellanus poisonings in detail. All but 2 patients had thirst. Some symptoms were rare, but usually not found in other mushroom poisonings--ringing in the ears, pain in the arms and legs, visual defects, difficulty breathing and swelling of the feet. Neurological symptoms and slight jaundice with abnormal liver tests were rare. (121)

Cortinarius orellanus
Cortinarius orellanus photo © Flora Photographica Cortinarius

Cortinarius orellanus Fr. has a reddish orange brown cap and gills, a color similar to that of annatto powder; this mushroom fluoresces blue in ultraviolet light. The cap is 3-8 cm across, fibrillose-tomentose to slightly tomentose-scaly, almost smooth in age, dry to moist, convex to expanded, sometimes broadly bossed. The gills are fairly thick, wide and distant from each other. The fibrillose stipe is gold to orange or tawny yellow, darkening towards the base, usually without yellowish remains of the partial veil; it is ± equal and measures 3-9 cm long, 4-12mm thick. The spores in mass are rusty yellow brown.

Subsequently, a second species, rather lighter in color, Cortinarius speciosissimus Kühner & Romagnesi, produced identical poisonings in several European countries. (122) Cortinarius speciosissimus and Cortinarius orellanoides Hry appeared to be the same species. (123) Brandrud et al in 1990, however, noted that the oldest name for this taxon (and therefore the correct one) was Cortinarius rubellus Cooke. (125b) [Brandrud, T.E., H. Lindström et al: 1990 Cortinarius. Flora Photographica, Cortinarius HB, Klövervägen, Matfors, Sweden.]

Cortinarius rubellus
Cortinarius rubellus photo © Flora Photographica Cortinarius

Smith and Stunz in the United States had described Cortinarius rainirensis from the Cascade Mountains in 1950. The type locations were Mt. Rainier National Park and Barlow Pass. (124,125) These mushrooms had a tawny to orange brown cap with small scales and pale flesh. Attempts to find it again in the same area failed. Ammirati et al in 1985 noted the likelihood of finding Cortinarius orellanoides or or closely related taxa in the PNW. (125,125a) Dr. Ammirati suspected that Cortinarius rainerensis and Cortinarius orellanoides were in fact the same mushrooms. Without fresh material, however, it was not possible to be sure.

A few years ago, however, Sharmin Gamiet of Abbotsford, British Columbia, found a collection of Cortinarius rainirensis A.H.Smith and Stunz in that province. (125a) Review of the Canadian and Washington material showed no difference. As noted, however, the correct name appears to be Cortinarius rubellus Cooke. (125b)