Mushroom Of The Week: Turkey Tails


Turkey Tails

(l., Trametes versicolor)

People seem to love cute little names for fungi: Scurfy Twiglet, Witch's Butter, Pine Spike and even the morbid Death Angel.  

And then there is the whole group of Poultry of the Woods such as Hawk's Wings, Chicken of the Woods, Hen of the Woods and the ubiquitous Turkey Tail fungus.  So named because their multicolored caps resemble the tails of strutting turkeys. 

Turkey Tails are unlike normal mushrooms in that they do not have gills underneath their caps. Rather, they have little holes, or pores, from which they release their spores to reproduce.  Thus, they fall into the huge group of fungi called Polypores, decayers of the woods, breaking down the lignin or cellulose in a twig or tree, and thus releasing all the minerals within to be recycled into new forest growth.

The name “Trametes versicolor” references the highly varied rainbow of banded colors their caps can have.  In colder weather you will often see shades of blue and in the summer the colors can range from yellows to reds, to greens and browns.  Their caps have a bit of a furry texture, and they always grow without a stem, directly attached to decaying wood and never growing directly out of the ground.  

A close look-alike is the False Turkey Tail which has similar banded colors on the cap, typically with orange or red colors, but is smooth on top and underneath.  It lacks pores altogether and is not a Polypore at all but is what is called a Crust Fungi. 

"Myco-medicines", medicines derived from fungi, is a huge topic of interest nowadays and a mega million-dollar industry.  Turkey Tails, along with other fungi such as Reishi, Lion's Mane and Cordyceps, have become famous due to their reported medicinal qualities.  It is claimed that tea made from their dried powder may be good for your immune system, that they may protect your DNA, remove toxins, increase energy levels, support your liver or spleen function and are antioxidants.

One of the first cancer treatment drugs, “statins” were derived from fungi and many other drugs have since been developed.  But I would caution any reader that most of the purported mushroom medicines and additives have not truly been tested and proven via the kind of true double-blind testing we normally look for in drug development.

One of the problems here is that the big pharma companies are not too inspired to test and prove a medicine that anyone can grow in their basement or backyard.  The American Medical Association also has little discretionary funding for drug research and much of that gets chewed up on work with herbal medicines, for example, so there is nothing left to study the humble fungi.  However, there is a long tradition of Chinese medicine and indigenous shaman throughout the world who claim various fungi have medicinal benefits.  

There is most likely some truth to all of this, but the user should keep in mind that once some fungi show benefits for a specific ailment, quickly you will see manufacturers drying it and putting it in a pill and claiming it is good for 32 different ailments.  Your task is to sort it all out and find out what may work for you and then what dosage is best for you.  My co-medicines may work well for some people, for some specific ailments, but it is up to you to self-diagnose with this respect.

One noted doctor in the mushroom world has often said there is no proof whatsoever that antioxidants do anything to help the human body and we should stop adding supplements to our diet because our bodies do a pretty darn good job all on their own.  Buyer beware. 

Having said all this, Turkey Tails are still a delight to find in the woods with their bright colors and prolific growth patterns.  You can make decorative wreaths with them or you can pick them while they are still actively growing, dry them and have a cup of tea.

Sure, why not?

Gary Gilbert lectures about fungi locally and through the Boston Mycological Club.  Some of his recipes will be featured in the soon to be released Fantastic Fungi Community Cookbook, a compendium of recipes from myco-chefs throughout the country.

heads and tails, reishi, cancer treatment, drug development, american medical association, turkey tail fungus, chicken of the woods, trametes versicolor