The Turkey Tail Fungus and Others

Have you ever wondered what the woods of your county would be like during a long period of time without fungi? As a matter of fact, the forests could not exist without the invaluable aid of these lowly plants, which are continually at work reducing dead trees and forest litter to essential humus on the forest floor.

Without the sanitary services of fungi through the centuries, the huge buildup of forest debris would eventually become a deep veritable “tinder box” that could be ignited in various natural and unnatural ways. The resulting conflagration would reduce the once-pristine forest and its fertile topsoil to the likes of a sterile desert.

Turkey Tail fungi can be variously colored from shades of brown to gray.

We think back to one of our favorite trips to the Olympic National Park, the only great rain forest within the continental United States. Here, for thousands of years, immense forest “Methuselahs” have germinated, grown to gigantic maturity, died and plunged to earth, there to be broken down and returned to their elements primarily by fungi, nature’s expert recyclers.

Even though by conservative estimate about 10 percent of our American forest crop is killed, damaged or degraded in value annually by fungus attacks, the beneficial aspects of the hundreds of species of fungi greatly outweigh the harmful.

One of the most damaging mushrooms to living trees in this region is a favorite edible species, Armillaria mellea, referred to as the Honey Cap or stump mushroom. Its mycelia enter wounds and attack the cambium of trees, killing them. Fortunately, this mushroom lives equally well on dead trunks, stumps, branches and twigs beneath the leaf litter, helping to break down this non-living material.

Polypores, or bracket fungi, are thought to be the major group of wood-rotting fungi and are of vital importance to forests. Polypore simply means “many pores,” referring to the numerous small tube mouths, or pores, usually situated on the bottom surfaces of these fungi. These pores contain and eventually release the spores.

Some of these pores are so tiny that a 10X hand lens is needed to detect them. One of the so-called bracket fungi is called the Artist’s Conk. Conks are hard, woody, shelf-like growths on living or dead trees. A large specimen, about 20 inches across, produces approximately 30 million spores each day for several months and as many as 5½ trillion in one season.

We have come upon old Sugar Maple tree stumps with several Artist’s Conks (Ganoderma applanatum) growing on each one. The millions of microscopic spores released by these unusual formations stained everything beneath them a dull dusty brown, an area several feet in diameter. These semicircular to fan-shaped conks have no stalks, are perennial and add new layers of growth each year onto the old ones.

Two of the polypores, most of which are difficult to identify, frequently grow on dead or dying birch trees. One is the Birch Polypore, Piptoporus betulinus (betula is the genus of birch trees.) The fungus has a thick, blunt margin and a recessed pore surface on the underside of the satiny smooth, whitish cap.

These Horse’s Hoof fungi show several years of growth.

The other well-known birch tree bracket fungus is called the Horse’s Hoof fungus, Fomes fomentarius. These fungi, common to this region, resemble horses’ hooves firmly attached to the trunks of birches.

Most polypores belong to one large genus, Polyporus (po-LIP-o-rus). Only a small number of them are edible, among them being the Sulfur Shelf, Beefsteak or Ox-tongue fungus, and Hen of the Woods. In his delightful book, Mushrooms Wild and Edible, Vincent Marteka writes, “To the imaginative eye, a clump of this fungus (Hen of the Woods) looks like a setting hen that has just ruffled its feathers after being disturbed on the nest.”

One of the most widespread, variable and easily recognized polypores is what is commonly called the Turkey Tail fungus, Trametes (tra-ME-teez) versicolor. This multi-colored, multi-zoned shelf-like cluster of tiny brackets often has concentric bands of contrasting colors including white-gray, brown, yellowish-buff, bluish, reddish, black and even hints of green when algae are present.

Typically turkey tail fungi digest the sapwood of fallen trees. You can find them literally covering rotting logs on the ground, stumps and fallen branches.

Tiers of shelving masses of these colorful fungi are a delight to behold. They are thin and leathery when fresh, becoming tougher as they age. David Arora, when asked about their edibility, said (with tongue in cheek) they are edible after having been boiled for 62 hours!

Turkey Tail fungi can be lumped in with roughly 75 percent of Door County’s 450 species as being neither edible nor poisonous, but either too tiny, bitter, tasteless or tough for human consumption.

Of the known species, 15 percent are edible while about 10 percent are poisonous.

The nice feature of Turkey Tails is that, along with many of the other polypores, they fruit from spring to fall. They can easily be found and enjoyed decorating and gently decomposing fallen trees even in winter when other fleshy mushrooms are nowhere to be seen. Indeed, they are lovely and vital partners in nature.