If, during a walk, you notice a trunk covered with overlapping, colorful rosettes of fungus resembling tiles, there is a high chance that you have encountered the turkey tail fungus. The appearance of the fruiting bodies of this fungus is well reflected in its name ‘turkey tail.’ Its Latin name, Trametes versicolor, also relates to its appearance and means ‘someone thin’ (‘ trametes’) and colorful (‘ versicolor’). The Chinese call it Yun Zhi, saying, literally, ‘cloud mushroom.’ The turkey tail fungus is commonly found worldwide and considered common. However, given its health properties, it is exceptional.
Turkey Tail Fungus – Occurrence
Turkey Tail Fungus (Lat. Trametes versicolor) is a species of fungi from the Polyporaceae family. It belongs to tree-dwelling fungi, colloquially called ‘hubs.’ Species included in this group grow and develop in wood. The fruiting bodies of the turkey tail can be found on dead branches and trunks of various deciduous trees and occasionally on coniferous trees. It is a true citizen of the world, found almost globally and every season, occurring in forests, parks, gardens, and orchards.
How to identify the Turkey Tail Fungus?
Fruiting bodies grow in dense clusters next to each other or one on top of the other. They form picturesque compositions of thin, multicolored, semi-circular caps that resemble a turkey tail. The turkey tail comes in various colors, arranged on its fans’ surface like a rainbow. Among the dominant colors are black, steel black, blue, red, yellow, and green. The edge of the individual caps is usually wavy and in a lighter shade—white, creamy. Under the cap is a porous hymenophor (the part of the fungus where spores are produced). Pores in young fruiting bodies are light; in older ones—they darken. Turkey tail can be easily confused with species of the same genus. Similar tree-dwelling fungi include Trametes gibbosa, T. ochracea, and T. hirsuta. Each of these species is marked in Poland as inedible but non-toxic.
Turkey Tail Fungus in Folk Medicine
Although the turkey tail is considered inedible in Europe, it has a long history of use in Far East countries. Its medicinal properties were already described in the 16th century by Chinese doctor and pharmacist Li Shi Zhen. According to him, when consumed regularly, the fungus was believed to bring health benefits and ensure a long life. In traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine, a dried turkey tail was brewed. Such fungal tea was thought to help with lung diseases, strengthen the psyche, and provide energy. Most of the health properties attributed to the turkey tail have been proven based on scientific experiments.
Turkey Tail in Modern Medicine
Numerous scientific studies confirm the turkey tail’s immunostimulating, antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, antidiabetic, and hepatoprotective effects. This is related to the presence of such bioactive components as phenolic compounds, fatty acids, terpenes, and protein-polysaccharide complexes. Two compounds that distinguish the turkey tail from other species are particularly noteworthy: unique beta-glucans PSK (Polysaccharide Krestin) and PSP (polysaccharide-peptide). Both compounds are commonly used in hospitals in China and Japan as supportive in cancer therapy. Polysaccharide Krestin is recognized as the first approved mushroom-derived drug in treating such diseases.
PSK and PSP as Hope for Oncology
PSK and PSP are protein-polysaccharide complexes. Their molecular weight is approximately 100 kDa. Like most immunoactive fungal polysaccharides, they are classified as beta-glucans. The first information on anticancer properties was related to PSK. In the 1980s, the Japanese government approved using Krestin for drug production. The anticancer mechanisms of PSK and PSP inhibit the immunosuppressive effects of chemo- and radiotherapy. Beta-glucans obtained from the turkey tail activate lymphocytes and stimulate the production of cytokines. The direct effects of both compounds on cancer cells are also not excluded. Current studies show that products containing PSK and PSP significantly improve the quality of life of cancer patients. It is also worth noting that most polysaccharide mushroom drugs are administered by injection. Krestin is taken orally, which additionally facilitates its use.
Effect on the Digestive System
Extracts from the turkey tail also affect the gut microbiota. Their action is multifaceted and confirmed by in vitro studies. Polysaccharides present in the fungus function as a prebiotic. They stimulate immune cells and regulate the gut microbiome. Additionally, it has been proven that PSP isolated from the turkey tail modifies the composition of gut bacteria. Studies have shown an increase in beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacterium spp. and Lactobacillus spp. Potentially harmful bacteria like Clostridium, Staphylococcus, and Enterococcus have been reduced .
Supplements with Turkey Tail
The market is seeing an increasing availability of supplements with turkey tail. The dried form, in powder or capsules, can be purchased in online stores, herbal stores, and organic delicacies. The price of such products is approximately 40 – 50 PLN for 50 capsules, where one tablet contains about 450 mg of mushroom dry matter. However, it is essential to remember that the turkey tail has not been introduced to the list of mushrooms approved for circulation in Poland. Supplements with its addition are only offered as a veterinary dietary supplement. It’s worth noting that there are few legal regulations regarding supplements and mushroom products. This may be associated with the risk of chemical or microbiological contamination of the product purchased from an unreliable source.
Turkey Tail straight from the forest?
Turkey Tail is a woody and tough-to-chew fungus. Thus, it is classified as inedible. It is not suitable for traditional mushroom dishes like creamy sauce or casserole. However, it is sometimes consumed in powdered form or as a liquid extract. When harvesting fresh, young fruit bodies from the natural environment, cleaning them carefully and then drying them is crucial. For this purpose, mushroom dryers or ovens are used. The recommended drying temperature is about 50°C. After drying, the mushrooms should be brown and brittle. The dried product should be stored tightly in a dry, cool, and dark place.
Although the turkey tail is a characteristic and common fungus, an inexperienced mushroom collector may need help distinguishing it from other similar species. In every mushroom foraging, only those species that are undoubtedly recognized should be collected.
Turkey Tail in the kitchen
Mushroom superfoods are gaining increasing popularity. Scientifically proven health properties of the turkey tail encourage the use of this popular fungus in the diet. The most common recipe involving turkey tail is a dried product or tea broth. Among other recipes shared by phytotherapy enthusiasts, we can find tinctures, mushroom coffee, and even cakes with the addition of mushroom dry matter.
The turkey tail, popular in Polish forests, has multi-directional medicinal properties. Due to its antioxidant, immunostimulating, or anticancer properties, its significance for the pharmaceutical industry is continuously growing. Polysaccharide compounds isolated from turkey tail fruit bodies are used as drugs in cancer therapy in Asian countries. For the medicines to be recognized in other parts of the world, further research on the mechanisms of action of mushroom extracts is necessary.
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A graduate in Food Technology and Human Nutrition from the University of Agriculture in Krakow. Dietician, mushroom enthusiast, traveler, and lover of good cuisine.