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Tracking Turkey Tails and Conservation

By Sara Wright

The Chinese call them cloud fungus, conjuring up the shapes of these stunning polypores. I see scalloped bands of cinnamon, brown, orange, gray-blue and violet ‘shelves,’ or conks appearing on dying or dead logs. Often, turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) create astonishing rosettes. 

Recall that all fungi lack chlorophyll, so turkey tail conks need to penetrate substrates like birch logs to absorb nutrients in order to grow. The conks are attached to tubular hyphae (rootlets) that originate underground and are part of the mycelial network. These are saprophytic fungi, which means they break down wood, adding nutrients that help create new soil. Turkey tails are quite common throughout the U.S. and Canada and grow on about 70 kinds of trees throughout the year in mild climates.

I see them growing on dying or dead birch, poplar, cherry, and maple logs that spend the winter under snow. The artist in me simply cannot walk by turkey tails without stopping to feel their velvety flesh (made up of tiny hairs) and admiring the way nature paints each cluster in a variety of hues. I am the kind of forager who seeks beauty not food, while hoping to learn more about the complex relationships between fungi, their hosts, and the ecosystem they share. My love for this shelf fungus goes back as far as I can remember. Each fall I have picked an ‘ear’ or two to keep throughout the winter even though over time the colors fade as the fungus becomes somewhat stiff.

A few years ago, after a wild winter microburst I ended up with masses of fallen birch logs, some of which I stacked. Birch breaks down quickly, and much to my delight Trametes versicolor and its relatives rapidly colonized many of my fallen birch logs. Consequently, I never have had as many turkey tails as I do now! Turkey tails prefer to grow mostly on hardwoods in the shade, but they can tolerate some sun. I have also occasionally found them growing on conifers.

Last summer I spent a lot of time in my woods. I focused on trying to identify all the turkey tail look-alikes that sprouted out of the same logs that support the turkey tails. This is the trickiest part of identifying this polypore. There is one so similar that it bears the name ‘false turkey tail,’ but all you have to do is flip the conk over. Stereum ostrae, a type of crust fungus, does not have pores; the underside is completely smooth. The rest all have pores. 

Some Trametes species have large pores. True turkey tails have very small pores that are only just barely visible. Once aged, they become harder to see. Another identifying factor is the silkiness of the surface. A true turkey tail has a velvety feel to it, and, depending on the light, a silvery blue sheen may shimmer on its cap. If the cap lacks starkly contrasting colors, is just textural, or if the colors are muted or subtle shades of the same color, then you probably have Trametes pubescens. There is another turkey tail look alike, known as hairy bracket fungus (Trametes hirsute), that looks a lot like a turkey tail, but instead of having surface colored by striped rings, it’s mostly white or gray. 

Fresh turkey tail mushrooms have bright colors and are thin and flexible. As they age, they dry out a bit and their colors fade. If the mushrooms are rigid and hard, then you have Trametes ochracea. Last fall I saw a stunning cinnamon shelf fungus that I was sure was a turkey tail. I picked it because I loved the colors, but, when I turned the mushroom over, it was full of striped gills! Gilled polypores often grow on the same logs, too. Learning the difference between turkey tails and all its relatives is fun. I suspect that all the Trametes can be used in much the same way medicinally because they all grow on the same substrates, but only one species has been studied with positive results. 

With the fungi foraging craze for either food or medicine exploding in this country, mycologist and best-selling author of Entangled Life Merlin Sheldrake reminds us that a few mushrooms are already on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) Red List. The ICUN has only recently begun to assess fungi, so little is known about the consequences of overharvesting for food or medicine, but conservationists are deeply concerned. As of 2023 only a little over 500 fungal species have been assessed. Assessing fungal species for identification and population size takes years and involves a lot of field research. Add to this the fact that we know little about how mushrooms and their spores affect the ecology of the forest and grasslands.

We need to be responsible, respectful of the forests and other biomes we traverse, and forage with common sense. If we seek mushrooms for either food or medicine, following a simple rule will make all the difference. Harvest only a few mushrooms from one place. Don’t remove an entire flush.

Fortunately, there are many alternatives to harvesting popular mushrooms in the wild like turkey tails, oysters, reishi, shiitake, chaga, and lion’s mane. Mycologist Paul Stamets sells grow kits for all these mushrooms, mushroom spawn, tinctures, and capsules online. Also a new company based in Portland Maine called North Spore does the same as do hundreds of others. When I grew my own oyster mushrooms, the naturalist in me became fascinated by the process which I could witness day by day. I think some children might find this experience as exciting as I did.

Any spring walk is enhanced by discovering enchantingly beautiful turkey tail mushrooms and trying to identify all their relatives.

Photo Credit: 

Bernard Spragg, Turkey tail Fungus. This work has been released into the public domain by the author on Flickr, where the author has declared it as a "Public Domain Work" and tagged it with the Creative Commons Public Domain Mark

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