When it comes to mushrooms, most of us are looking for those choice edibles that wow us on the dinner plate. There are tons of wild mushrooms that are delicious and free for those who know how to safely forage them.
But, the foraging shouldn’t stop there: Lots of mushrooms are medicinal, many of which are at the forefront of combating serious ailments like Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease. One of the most powerful medicinal mushrooms is called the turkey tail.
While turkey tail mushrooms aren’t particularly good for eating (they are a bit like chewing on indestructible cardboard), they are edible in that they can be used to make delicious teas and broths. In short, the point of finding turkey tail mushrooms isn’t because they are choice edibles, it is because they are choice medicinals.
The turkey tail mushroom is formally identified as Trametes versicolor, Coriolus versicolor, and/or Polyporous versicolor, but it gets its common name from the fact that it resembles—you guessed it—the tail of a turkey. It fans out similar to a male turkey displaying his plumage in search of a mate, and the coloration of the mushroom is a collection of irregular bands of greys, browns, whites, and blacks.
Turkey tail mushrooms are exceptionally common, found in most forest around the world. Turkey tails are saprophytic (decomposing) mushrooms, so they help to break down old wood that has fallen in the forest. Consequently, they tend to grow on dead wood on the forest floor, either in shelf-like brackets or rosettes. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Keys to Identifying Turkey Tail Mushrooms
Though it is extremely common, turkey tail mushroom lookalikes are equally as common, so it’s important to know the key elements to look for when identifying a turkey tail mushroom.
- It grows on dead wood, especially hardwood, either in shelf-like brackets or rosettes. If that is not the situation, then it’s probably not a turkey tail.
- The top of the turkey tail has concentric zones of color, though there is no set pattern or exact number of colors.
- Its texture is somewhat like leather, flexible and tough, when it’s fresh.
- The bottom of a fresh turkey tail mushroom is white. Like, white white. There are similar mushrooms that have different levels of yellowy beige on their undersides, but turkey tail mushrooms have a white underside.
- Because turkey tail mushrooms are polypore fungi, their undersides also have thousands of teeny-tiny pores as opposed to gills. These pores are so small that the underside of the mushrooms can seem flat.
- There is no stem. It’s attached directly to the wood.
If all of these tell-tales are in place, then you are well on your way to identifying a turkey tail mushroom. Of course, novices should seek the guidance of more experienced foragers and practice extreme caution when harvesting and consuming any wild mushroom.
Turkey Tail Lookalikes
One of the crucial parts of foraging for wild mushrooms is knowing not just which mushrooms to identify but also recognizing those that might be mistaken for the desired fungi. With turkey tail foraging, there are a handful of other mushrooms to learn about:
- False turkey tails (Stereum ostrea) aren’t polypores but a crust fungus. They grow as shelves like turkey tails, look similar on top and grow in the same places. However, their undersides have no pores and are red or brown rather than white.
- Another “false turkey tail” is Stereum hirsutum, and it has similar characteristics as the aforementioned false turkey tail, only it is a little smaller and tends to fuse together.
- Violet toothed polypore (Trichaptum biforme) looks like the turkey tail from the top, though a little less vibrant in coloration. On the underside, though, this mushroom’s pores are spread apart, and they are violet instead of white.
- Lenzites betulina also looks very similar to the turkey tail from the top side, but it is easily differentiated because it has notable gills rather than pores. However, unlike the other lookalikes, the underside is stark white as with turkey tails.
The lucky part of turkey tail lookalikes is that they don’t tend to be dangerous. In fact, some of them are considered mildly medicinal themselves. That said, again, seek the guidance of more experienced foragers and practice extreme caution when harvesting and consuming any wild mushroom.
Turkey Tail Mushrooms as Medicine
Turkey tail mushrooms have been used as medicine for centuries, and unlike most medicinal mushrooms, their efficacy is backed by a tremendous amount of successful research. Turkey tails help our bodies regulate the immune system, which aids in fighting cancer, reducing inflammation, and promoting speedy recovery, such as from chemotherapy.
In order to use it as medicine, it is prepared as a tea. The mushrooms are dehydrated so that they turn crispy. They are then blended to create a powder that looks more like a collection of paper spitballs. To prepare the tea, boil five parts water and add one-part turkey tail powder. Let this simmer for a long while, at least fifteen minutes and up to an hour. Strain out the solids.
Personally, I prefer to use my turkey tail “tea” as a turkey tail broth for a nice soup. The same medicinal qualities are there, but the flavor profile seems more suitable to my tastes. I love to add some fresh green onions, a little shaved garlic, and some cayenne, all of which add to the medicinal nature of the treat.
*Note: Turkey tail capsules and powder can be bought online or in health food stores. They are not cheap, however, but they are free and freely available along hiking trails.
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