As a professional botanist, I don’t know my mushrooms well, but I am working to learn more. This fall, I’m sharing some easily identified, beginner-level species so you can learn too! In hindsight, I should have profiled today’s fungus last week (Thanksgiving Monday) – this is Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).
You can see where Turkey Tail gets its name: its shape and bands of colour resemble the tail of a Wild Turkey (Photo 1). Those bands are not only beautiful, but also wonderfully velvety to touch (I recommend you try it!) Underneath the flexible, fan-shaped caps are many tiny pores (so small you can hardly see them, Photo 2), making Turkey Tail one of the polypores and putting it the same broad group as the Hen of the Woods I showed you last week.
Like other polypores, Turkey Tail is a decomposer. It breaks down deadwood and recycles those nutrients so they can be re-used by plants. Different types of decomposers promote different types of recycling. Turkey Tail is one of the white-rot fungi and leaves behind lots of cellulose (a carbohydrate) which promotes nitrogen-fixing bacteria and wood-eating invertebrates. In this way, it contributes to healthy forest soils, available nitrogen, and forest biodiversity.
While its ecological role is important, Turkey Tail is better-known for medicinal properties which have been recognized traditionally for thousands of years. Turkey Tail extract is available commercially and marketed as an immune booster. Medical research is supporting that claim and identifying many bioactive compounds in the fungus. (One of these compounds [Polysaccharide K or PSK] has been approved for cancer treatment in China and Japan since the 1980s). This is an active area of medical research with promising results; recent studies have found that extracts from Turkey Tail not only have anti-cancer properties themselves but can also help increase the effectiveness of some anti-cancer drugs.
I haven’t delved into the peer-reviewed literature enough to know if there have been any scientifically-proven benefits to drinking Turkey Tail tea – the research I know about looked at specific extracts that may or may not be present in homebrew. (Though given Turkey Tail’s long history of medicinal use, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are). Regardless, I do make Turkey Tail powder (Photo 3) to enjoy as tea or added to soups and sauces. You can learn how I do it here: https://www.pei-untamed.com/post/turkey-tail-tea
As a final note, there are a couple of mushrooms that look a bit like Turkey Tail, but it’s not hard to tell them apart. If you’re seeing a flexible, velvety cap with bands of colour and a white underside with tiny pores, it’s Turkey Tail. If in doubt, check out the Totally True Turkey Tail Test at mushroomexpert.com.
I commonly see Turkey Tail on downed hardwoods (including cut stumps and logs) across the Island. With all the trees felled by Fiona last fall, I expect the next few years will see a bumper crop of this part of PEI untamed!