Finding Cortinarius species is a real treat for me. Many times, these mycorrhizal species have a unique coloration and/or texture. They’re quite rigid, so I can transport them from the forest floor to my home with ease, without needing to bring a protective container. I usually identify them and dry them so I can have a look at a later date. The last Cortinarius species I have found was a first for me. The striking Cortinarius semisanguineus, has a rather fitting common name-the surprise webcap. I must admit, when I turned the cap over to take a look at its gill surface, I was most definitely surprised.
Expecting to find dark brown gills, I was taken back by the bright red pigments making up the spore forming surface. I love the feeling of discovery. There is so many species to find, so when I do encounter a mushroom and haven’t seen before, especially when it has a striking feature, I am filled with an overwhelming excitement.
Not only is this species common name descriptive of its physical appearance, but so is its Latin name. This species has a closely related cousin that is completely red, called the bloodred webcap (Cortinarius sanguineus). In Latin, sanguineus means “of blood,” so when we look at the Latin name of the fungus featured in today’s edition of Fungi Friday, we realize that semisanguineus means “half of blood.” Clearly, this describes that half of the mushroom is red.
Interestingly, both of these aforementioned species are highly sought after by individuals that naturally dye fabrics. The rich pigments these species produce can be extracted and applied to textile fibers, yielding colors from pinks, reds, and even purples. The resulting dye colors depends on the type of treatment used.
Besides having textile dying applications and esthetic appeal, a 2012 paper by Pickles et al. reveals that Cortinarius semisanguineus has a competitive edge as it fights for space among its host plant’s roots. Beneath the forest floor, there are crazy complex communities living in the areas around plant roots. These small-scale ecosystems are aptly called the rhizosphere. When you do find a mycorrhizal mushroom popping up near its plant host, you must realize that within that same rhizosphere, there can be hundreds of other fungi interacting with those same roots. It is an extremely rare occurrence that one fungal species would take over the entire rhizosphere. This 2012 paper wanted a better look at these competitive interactions.
This paper suggests that the mycorrhizal community at the root tips is strongly structured by competition rather than stochastic interactions. Out of the 43 ectomycorrhizal species recorded in this study, Cortinarius semisanguineus, along with just a handful of other species were the most dominant. One of the most intriguing pieces of evidence revealed by this study was the antagonistic behavior displayed by Cortinarius semisanguineus against its other closely related Cortinarius cousins. There was a clear pattern in the rhizosphere that showed that in the areas of C. semisanguineus-plant root interaction, no other Cortinarius species where found nearby.
This is an interesting concept in ecology. You would think that closely related species would get along, and even help each other out, but this is not the way of nature. In most cases, closely related species require many of the same resources. Because of this closely related species, and even individuals of the same species compete vigorously for space. This is the main reason for Cortinarius antagonism. Another reason this species appears to displace other Cortinarius species lies within the morphology of its hyphae. All of the other Cortinarius species identified in this study have fine, short range hyphae. Cortinarius semisanguineus has thick medium length hyphae that can readably outcompete its other Cortinarius counterparts.
When I first turned over this mushroom, I was surprised to find this rich blood red color. As I learned more about the surprise webcap, I was surprised even more. Its use for dyes and its antagonistic nature towards other Cortinarius species are traits I will remember for the rest of my life. Until we meet again you cool little mushroom.