Saturday, December 3, 2011

Takin' a Closer Look

I have been combing the woods recently in search of vibrant plant life. Garlic Mustard is still popping up as is Wood Nettle (so I hear), however most of the plants have gone to seed and died back, seeds and roots moving into their winter slumber. So, as a result, I've had to simply look a little bit closer at the bare branched trees and browning stalks still standing tall.

It can be helpful to know how to identify your favorite plants even in the winter, so that come spring, you know just where to look for that choice medicinal / edible.

The plants to follow were found en route to the swamp in the Milford Experimental Forest as well as along the trail winding through the Pike County Park and over the gas pipeline.

Black Birch (Betula lenta) lenticels
 Black Birch is one of the few birches that does not have peeling bark and can be easily identified in winter by its elongated lenticels or rather the pores through which the tree "breathes" They allow the living tissue located beneath the bark to receive both moisture and air. Another indicator are its small cones that will hang on through the winter.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
Mullein stalks can be seen standing tall throughout the winter. Look for it in open fields and dry roadsides. The large leaves covered with fine velvety hairs make a basal rosette. Both the leaf and flower make for an excellent soothing expectorant, particularly helpful in hot/dry coughs with aching lungs. Here we see only its empty seedpods, but in the summer it will bear a wand of yellow 5-petaled flowers.

underside of Turkey Tail mushroom

Turkey Tail growing on dead standing birch

Turkey Tail on rotting stump

Now, as far as mushrooms go, I am but a budding mushroom enthusiast, still stumbling my way through the woods, marveling at the fungi at my feet, but with little knowledge of that which I'm inspecting. However, I do believe these to be Turkey Tails (Trametes versicolor). Versicolor means "of many colors" which accurately describes this shroom's many guises. However all Turkey Tails will bear this design of parallel lines following the contour of the cap and are often velvety to the touch. They are also considered polypores which refers to their lack of "spore bearing tissue continuous along the underside of the mushroom" (Wiki). Many polypores are shelf or "bracket" fungi, meaning that they lack a distinct stalk and will be found growing "shelf-like" on rotting trees. 

Turkey Tail has the ability to support immune system function and has also been shown to have some ability in preventing the development of cancerous cells. A medicinal tea can be made by simmering these mushrooms for 20 minutes (a decoction). They can also simply be plucked from the tree and chewed raw while out for a hike. Why not increase your health in more ways than one? However, before making a medicinal brew of this shroom, make sure to connect with an expert forager and learn the basics of mushroom identification.

I invite any of my readers who know their mushrooms to please share their knowledge here on the blog in the comments section. There's so much to learn!


  1. Heather,

    Thanks for keeping up with this writing even after finishing your hike across NC...Really appreciate your insights and often also provides a good review for me...At a recent event Christopher Hobbs was talking about a multi-million dollar grant that Bastyr University received to investigate the medicinal properties of Turkey Tail! May your adventures continue sweetly...Much love and respect to thee...marc

  2. I believe turkey tail when fresh should be white underneath with small round pores - whereas the mushroom you are holding in the picture has 'teeth-like' pores and is a dark cream colour - look here:

    Lovely blog btw - wanted to help out a fellow fungi enthusiast find some real gems out in them woods :-)

    1. Hi there - thank you for pointing this out! I will have to make this correction here. Mushrooms are still a fairly new world to me so any and all that I can learn from others is greatly appreciated. Great link too :)