trametes versicolor, turkey tail mushroom

Trametes versicolor: A Guide to Turkey Tail Mushroom

This medicinal mushroom may not be psychedelic, but it performs some potent magic tricks of its own.

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If you’ve ever walked in any forests around the world, even those unfamiliar with fungi will likely have spotted turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) mushrooms. With its bands of color fanning out in concentric rings, it’s easy to see where this mushroom gets its name. 

Though this incredible-yet-inedible fungus might not be a frequent find in the forager’s basket, the turkey tail plays an important role in returning the nutrients locked up in dead trees back into the ecosystem. Despite the mushroom’s culinary insignificance, turkey tail has been studied for its medical compounds, as well as its ability to clean up contaminated land and help us make more sustainable products. In this article, we’ll explore why there’s much more to the common turkey tail than its beautiful colors.

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What is Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)?

As often is the case in biology, knowing a little Latin can give you clues as to what a mushroom, or any species, might look like. The Latin name for this species, Trametes versicolor, describes the mushroom simply—one which is thin (tram) and multicolored (versicolor).

turkey tail mushrooms
Mushroom Observer

Turkey tail was first named Boletus versicolor in 1753 by Carl Linneaus, a Swiss naturalist known as “the father of modern taxonomy” for his contributions to the system of classifying and naming plants and animals that we still use today. It wasn’t until 1920 that this species was reclassified as Trametes versicolor by American mycologist Curtis Lloyd. 

You may see some mycology texts also refer to turkey tail under other Latin names such as Coriolus versicolor or Polyporus versicolor. In Japan, this mushroom is known as kawaratake (roof tile mushroom), and in China by yun zhi (cloud mushroom). Some mycologists consider Trametes versicolor a “species complex,” meaning that mushrooms identified under this name may actually be several separate but closely-related species. 

Turkey tail is one of the white rot fungi—those which are capable of breaking down the complex compounds found in wood, such as lignin and cellulose. The white rot fungi are remarkable as they are also capable of breaking down synthetic compounds not found in nature, making them promising natural solutions to cleaning up contaminated land, a process known as bioremediation. Turkey tail and its enzymes have been shown to break down compounds such as mustard gas, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) found in coal and oil, as well as wood preservatives and nylon membranes.

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Other uses for turkey tail include the emerging field of mycofabrication—using mycelium to build various biodegradable products, including clothing, insulation, and packaging. The mycelium of fungi like turkey tail, reishi, and oyster mushrooms are particularly popular due to their ability to tightly bind their substrates, which, when molded to the required shape, can form three-dimensional structures that are strong yet able to break down sustainably in the environment.

turkey tail mushrooms
Mushroom Observer

Are Turkey Tail Mushrooms Edible? 

Though turkey tail is not considered poisonous, its tough leathery texture is similar to bad beef jerky, so is generally not considered edible. Despite its inedibility, the compounds found in turkey tail are being researched for other medical uses, compounds like beta-glucans and polysaccharide K. In Japan, polysaccharide K is approved as an adjunct medicine combined with chemotherapy.

Yet, at the time of writing, research generally remains inconclusive regarding turkey tail’s ability to treat specific diseases. Similar mysteries surround the precise mechanisms of actions of turkey tail compounds. At the time of writing, such research remains inconclusive regarding turkey tail’s ability to treat specific diseases. Those seeking out turkey tail-based supplements should also be careful of reported side effects like darkening of both poop and fingernails: Follow the dosage on the bottle and always ensure your supplements come from reputable sources.

Read: Our Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms

turkey tail mushrooms
Mushroom Observer

Is the Turkey Tail Mushroom Psychedelic?

Turkey tail’s undulating layers of colors radiating out from its stem make this mushroom look like it’s been picked straight from an Alex Gery painting—this is a mushroom that certainly looks psychedelic. However, unlike magic mushrooms such as Psilocybe cubensis, Psilocybe Mexicana, and Panaeolus cyanescens, turkey tail doesn’t contain any of the most well-known compounds that produce psychedelic effects.  

Where do Turkey Tail Mushrooms Grow? 

Turkey tail is a cosmopolitan mushroom species; it’s found almost all over the world. This mushroom grows on every continent except Antarctica and has been recorded as far north as Alaska and as far south as Victoria, Australia. 

Being a wood-rotting fungus, turkey tail is frequently found growing on dead or dying trees all year round. They prefer hardwoods such as beech and oak, but due to their ability to break down some wood preservatives, you may also find them growing out of old picnic benches, decking, or fence posts. Although their tough texture allows them to survive throughout the year, much like reishi, turkey tails are at their most vibrant during the autumn and winter months—the time when they produce most of their spores.

Turkey Tail Mushroom Identification

The first feature of turkey tail that will catch your eye will be the many bands of different colors radiating out from the center of the mushroom. On the underside of the caps, you will find many tiny whitish-cream pores. Despite being only 1 to 3 millimeters (1/25th to 1/9th inch) thick, the caps of turkey tail can grow up to 10 centimeters (4 inches) in diameter, sometimes overlapping and fusing to form thick carpets of mushrooms across their woody substrates.

The caps have a tough and leathery texture, with a velvety appearance sometimes seen in fresher specimens. Older mushrooms might have a greenish tinge, which comes not from the mushrooms themselves but from a group of microscopic plants called epimycotic algae, which grow on the caps as they age.

Read: Why You Should Grow Your Own Mushrooms

How to Grow Turkey Tail Mushrooms 

Turkey tail loves to grow on all different kinds of wood and is far less picky than other lignicolous fungi like reishi, lion’s mane, or hen of the woods. Like many other mushrooms, the mycelium of turkey tail happily grows on all kinds of cereal grains like rye, wheat, or millet, which can then be used to inoculate sawdust. In turn, this sawdust can be used as a fruiting substrate if packed into bags or used to inoculate logs for longer-term mushroom-growing projects.

When growing on grain, some growers avoid letting jars or bags sit around for too long after full colonization. This is because the hungry mycelium of turkey tail can tightly bind everything together, making it hard to separate the grain for further inoculation.

Turkey tail grows all around the world. So, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find a strain that is well adapted to your local climate, reducing your need to control things like growing temperature. Sourcing local species yourself can take a bit more work to get a clean culture, so you might want to turn to various online vendors who can supply you with spores or liquid culture. These vendors should also be able to tell you where their culture was sourced from and give more strain-specific growing tips. Generally speaking, though, most turkey tail strains grow well on grain at room temperature. It will fruit from its final substrate (logs or sawdust blocks) down to about 50-60 °F (10-15 °C).

Turkey tail grows are best done outdoors—although we have seen dedicated mycologists growing them in their showers. They will produce a fresh crop of mushrooms between fall or winter when the fruiting substrate is kept in a moist, shaded area of your garden. In more tropical locations, these mushrooms will fruit during the rainy season.

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Turkey Tail Mushroom Harvest 

Due to turkey tail’s tough leathery texture, harvesting may require the help of a serrated knife to avoid damaging the mushrooms as you pick them. If growing in bags, using very thin slits at the points where the plastic is pressed tight to the substrate can result in a much easier harvest of mushrooms, leaving more substrate behind on the block.

Turkey Tail Mushroom Look-alikes 

Many other species in the genus Trametes are often mistaken for turkey tail, both in their appearance, growing season, and common habitat of dead deciduous trees. The gilled polypore or birch mazegill, Trametes betulina (formerly Lenzites betulina), is often mistaken for turkey tail as it shows the same bands of colors on the cap of the mushroom. But look underneath, and you’ll quickly be able to tell the difference; as the common name mazegill suggests, this mushroom has gills instead of pores. Though Trametes betulina is also inedible, like turkey tail it may contain compounds of medicinal interest.

Lenzites betulina mushroom
Trametes betulina | Wikimedia Commons
Trametes suaveolens
Trametes suaveolens | Wikimedia Commons
Stereum ostrea
Stereum ostrea | Wikimedia Commons

Both the fragrant bracket (Trametes suaveolens) and the hairy bracket (Trametes hirsuta) can also be mistaken for turkey tail, but both mushrooms are much paler in color. As the name suggests, the hairy bracket mushroom, in particular, has a much more hairy cap compared to turkey tail.  

In addition to Trametes lookalikes, several crust fungi may often be mistaken for turkey tail, especially those in the genus Stereum. The false turkey tail (Stereum ostrea) is a prime example, but looking underneath this mushroom will show a distinct lack of pores, typical of a true turkey tail. Rather than pores, false turkey tail’s underside is just a smooth brown spore-bearing surface. 

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