The fanciful turkey tail fungus: nature’s recycler

Published 6:00 am Friday, December 10, 2021

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“Nature doth thus kindly heal every wound. By the mediation of a thousand little mosses and fungi, the most unsightly objects become radiant of beauty.” — Henry David Thoreau

Yes, Thoreau was right. Mosses and fungi have the ability to make most objects beautiful, especially when the days are cold and dark. Take a walk in the woods now, and you won’t find any plants blooming. Well, maybe a skunk cabbage that’s emerged way ahead of schedule, but it’s specially equipped to deal with cold, ice and snow. It’s thermogenic.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty going on in Mother Nature’s garden. If you look carefully at the ground, and especially half rotten logs and tree stumps, you’ll find a miniature world, a sort of fairy land that’s thriving. There are mosses and fungi everywhere, and many of them are beautiful. Even in the dead of winter, the mosses are still a vibrant green, and many are very velvety to the touch. The fungi are also still active, especially those living on rotting wood.

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One of the easiest to identify is the turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), a multicolored fungus/ mushroom that grows on dead deciduous tree stumps and logs; it’s not unusual to see an entire stump covered with this fungus. The turkey tail mushroom is ruffled and grows in shelf-like layers; it’s a bracket fungus or mushroom. Each mushroom has concentric bands of varying colors, usually white, gray, brown, cinnamon and reddish brown. Sometimes there is a line of green too, which is caused by algae. The ruffling and bands of varying colors make the mushroom resemble a turkey’s fanned tail, hence the common name.

The turkey tail mushroom is slow growing. It doesn’t have a stalk; the cap attaches directly to the wood where it lives. The turkey tail doesn’t have gills either. Instead, it has pores that hold the spores.

The turkey tail mushroom plays a crucial role in forests by decomposing dead wood, recycling nutrients and making space on the forest floor for new growth. It is a type of white rot fungus, meaning it consumes lignin faster than cellulose, thus making the dead wood soft, white and stringy.

These mushrooms aren’t poisonous but are tough and not particularly palatable. They have a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine. Since the Han Dynasty, turkey tail mushrooms have been used to make tonics for treating problems with the lungs, liver and spleen. Recently, there has been some research into the potential use of turkey tail mushrooms to decompose industrial products such as dyes and pesticides.

The turkey tail mushroom is one of the most common in North American and is also found in Europe and Asia. The next time you’re in the woods, look for this mushroom with the ruffling, muted colors and pores. Remember that, although it’s beautiful, it’s also an important agent of change on the forest floor. It’s an essential component of the cycle of life.

DR. CYNTHIA WOOD is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Herald. Her email address is cynthia.