Friday, November 4, 2016

Trailing Turkey Tail

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) 
Anyone who has been on one of my plant walks has heard me say, "My speciality is herbaceous and woody plants," after an attendee eagerly asks, "What mushrooms might we find today?" Mushrooms are a category in and of themselves, in fact a scientific class all their own: Fungi. My studies have had me trail many a green leafy, berry laden, crackling seeded, showy flowered plant...there are so many...but rarely does this leave the time for closer examination of the mysterious fungi world that aids the lives of these plants and provides yet another level of natural food and medicine for us. However with many of our green plants having already released their seeds to the soil until sprouting time in the spring, my senses are searching further, beneath the deepening layers of leaves now blanketing the trail.

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) shelves forming a rosette shape
Yesterday, my love and I ventured to Delaware State Forest for a walk along an unnamed trail. We marveled at the now-bright red berries drooping from beneath the nearly whorled leaves of Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and enjoyed spotting the fuzzy leaves of Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens), we even spotted a few lone still-yellow flowered Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)...but nothing compared to the concentric-circled scallops of the Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) mushrooms that clustered rose-like around small stumps along the trail. These woods are made up largely of Black and Yellow Birch (Betula lenta and B. alleghiensis, White Pine (Pinus strobus), Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), and a variety of Maple and Oaks (Acer spp. and Quercus spp.)...however it seemed that Turkey Tail prefered the Black Birch. I can't blame 'em, that Wintergreen flavored bark is somethin' else. And if you look closely here, it seems the bear may take a liking to the Turkey Tail as well, either that or this scat was just happenstance.

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) beside bear scat
Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)is a polypore mushroom, meaning that it bears contains on its underside, as opposed to say gills or teeth. It forms in layered shelves on dead hardwood and rarely, the dead wood of conifers. It's scientific name is evidence of its versatile color scheme, ranging from shades of brown to blue to green (when aged and sharing its surface with an algal partner). Its surface will be conspicuously velvety to the touch. This mushroom has been valued as a medicinal in Chinese medicine dating back to the 15th century, useful in boosting the immune system when comprised. It's evidence of efficacy is so strong that Bastry University is presently funding a $5 million research project to find out just what makes Turkey Tail tick and how it could possibly build the immune systems of those undergoing chemotherapy for breast and lung cancers. Herbalists today use it to fight colds and flus and sip it as a preventative during the winter when these ailments are most likely to strike.

Turkey Tail (Trametes veriscolor) on Black Birch (Betula lenta) bark
So I returned today to harvest the only turkey I will be partaking of this Thanksgiving. I went for a short jog carrying on my bag a small daypack with a large ziploc and sharp knife to aid in removing the leathery mushrooms from their barky hosts. After about a mile, I spotted the multi-colored rosettes and so slowed my step to take a seat and spend some time with this community of mushrooms before harvesting. As I did, I was struck by how alive this forest now sounded that moments ago had seemed primed for slumber. Startled, I scanned the forest for sign of deer rifling through or perhaps even a bear lumbering towards me from afar. It took some minutes for my eyes to catch up with my ears and, gradually, I spotted the numerous chipmunks scurrying over fallen trees, the squirrels darting to and fro over and under the leaf litter, and even the whooshing of a bird's wings through the few trees overhead that persisted in holding tight to their papery leaves. All this activity had sprung from just these small creatures...I had needed only to pause long enough to notice them. An act that I all too often fail to do...pause.

Witch Hazel blossoms (Hamamelis virginiana)

But with the light growing ever closer to the golden hue of the Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blossoms nearby, if I was going to get my Turkey Tail before I too found myself nesting in the woods for the night, I had better get to work. Using my small knife, I sliced at the scallops' bases, carefully selecting the most fresh looking, leaving those that had already been sampled by the resident insects as well a good number to guarantee that this community would be flourishing when I returned later in the season for another harvest.  

If you do go venturing for your own harvest, bear in mind that there are look-a-likes, such as False Turkey Tail (Stereum ostrea), which is also capable of hosting a variety of colors and a similar velvety texture. The best way to discern these two is to flip over your potential Turkey Tail. True Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) will be pale in color and should bear many tiny pores, evident to the naked eye. False Turkey Tail will mimic the colors of its upper surface or be simply tan to brown in color bearing a smooth or bumpy surface. I have found no reports of False Turkey Tail being poisonous...nor have I found any history of usage. There are also a number of species of true Turkey Tail (Trametes spp.) that will exhibit slightly different textures atop its surface and lesser pores on underside of cap. These may be more or less medicinal, but all evidence points to the particular species (Trametes versicolor) discussed here. Therefore, surely exercise caution when harvesting Turkey Tail or any mushroom for that matter and be certain that you have your desired mushroom in hand before consuming.


  1. How brave! I would never venture to harvest a wild mushroom to eat after I attended a lecture in Gainesville. A beautiful fungi! I always say these types of fungi are elephant ear because, obviously, I am not very knowledgeable when it comes to fungus among us. I see now the beautiful colors reminiscent of a turkey feather and I thank you. Now, I must google all these birch because I want to know the differences. I love birch and I am only familiar with the easily recognized paper bark but I am fortunate to now own a wonderfully wild lake property and I want to know every inch of it and plant on it. I have a feeling some other types of birch are growing there so again, thank you.

    1. Hi Kathy, I am glad that you enjoyed the post! These are indeed beautiful mushrooms, to be both admired and respected. The Birches are an intriguing family - enjoy getting to know them!


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