Turkey Tail Mushroom – Trametes versicolor
At this time of year in the northern hemisphere its easy to think there isn’t much growing that can be harvested for medicine. The cold, dark and bleak months of January and February are often the time when many of us catch winter bugs. Rest assured, nature has our back! Turkey Tail fungus has been extensively studied for its beneficial effect on immune function. It grows pretty much all year round and is one of the most common wild mushrooms, if you’ve ever been walking in the woods of Northern America, Europe or Asia you’ve probably come across this mushroom. Its beauty, prevalence and effectiveness makes it an amazing and accessible medicine and one of our favourites. Once you are familiar with it, you will start to notice it everywhere.
This magic little mushroom plays a vital role in the cycles of natural world, decomposing dead wood and returning nutrients trapped in trees back to the earth. When used as a medicine for humans it plays a vital role in immune system, providing gentle little nudges that awaken and support an out of balance immune system
Where to find it
Grows on dead hardwood logs in woodlands and pretty much anywhere there is decaying wood, occasionally on living trees. You can buy supplements from your local health food shop or online in the form of capsules and powders.
True Turkey Tail has concentric rings of colour on its cap which can vary hugely but tend to stick to brown, buff, cream, orange and green, with an outer ring that is usually white or cream, resembling…you guessed it – a turkey’s tail feathers. It is 1-3mm thick. The pores on the underside are just visible to the naked eye and cover an area of about 3-8 pores per mm. The cap surface has a beautifully tactile fine layer of fuzz or hair (when harvesting this mushroom I often find a piece in my pocket that I’ve been stroking unconsciously all day). The fresh mushroom is thin and flexible, a bit like tough leather and 2-7cm wide, displayed in wavy rosettes. It can grow in small patches or, if you are lucky, it can cover an entire fallen tree. Most mushroom books say the smell is indistinctive but we think it smells really fresh like fruity mushrooms.
As Turkey tail ages it becomes flatter, thinner, less flexible and is often covered by a fine green algae, the underside pore surface also turns from a fresh white/cream colour to grey/brown. At this stage its not at its best.
There are a number of Turkey tail lookalikes including Trametes pubescens and Trametes hirsuta. While neither of these are regarded as particularly poisonous it is really important to identify that you have real Turkey Tail. We find this Turkey tail Quiz on the Mushroom expert website to be really helpful http://www.mushroomexpert.com/trametes_versicolor.html
Like many medicinal mushrooms, Turkey Tail contains various polysaccharides, one inparticular is polysaccharide K (PSK) which has been extracted and isolated from Turkey Tail. Preliminary research indicates that PSK has anticancer activity and may also inhibit various cancer onset mechanisms). It is also thought to protect healthy cells from radiotherapy so aids the function of cancer treatments.
Human trials using Turkey Tail as an adjuvant for conventional cancer treatments suggest that PSK may lessen cancer recurrence rates and improve survival time. Particularly in stomach and colorectal cancers.
PSK has a stimulating effect on the immune system, encouraging the body to produce more immune cells that attack foreign and abnormal cells (cancer) therefore, suppressing the growth of tumours. PSK is deemed to be very well tolerated in human trials with very few side effects.
In traditional western herbal medicine, Turkey tail is used for its benefits to the immune system. It is specifically useful in post viral fatigue and for those people who are prone to infections. It can be taken regularly throughout the winter months to keep immune function in tip top condition, preventing the occurrence of coughs, cold and flu.
Scientific studies show that turkey tail works by stimulating the immune system, however, the holistic view of this medicinal mushroom (and many others) is that they have a ‘adaptogenic’ effect acting to balance the immune system.
(References at bottom)
Processing/How to use it
Turkey tail has a very mild mushroom flavour and can be made into a simple decoction and drunk as a tea alone. We like to make our medicinal mushroom stock (recipe here) in bulk which we freeze and use in soups, stews, curries and risottos – the perfect winter foods!
The fruit body of Turkey tail is wood like in structure and the beneficial compounds are bound in tough cellulose. To break open the tough structure in mushrooms and get the most from them medicinally it is best to either do a long decoction them or tincture them.
Chop or break up the fresh or dried mushroom into small pieces (this increases surface area and gets ‘more out’ of them. Place about 1 tablespoon in a saucepan and cover with two cups of water and a lid. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 20-30 minutes. You can do longer – up to an hour but you may need to top up the water as it evaporates.
Chop or break up fresh or dried mushrooms into small pieces, cover with vodka. Label with what it is. Leave in a cool dark place for at least 1 month (you can leave it longer). Strain, bottle and label.
If you would like to know more about mushrooms check out Paul Stamets – one of the world’s leading mycologists. Here is one of his TED Talks https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXHDoROh2hA he also has a number of huge books covering a vast amount of information on medicinal mushrooms ranging from how to grow them at home to outlining some revolutionary uses of mushrooms such as using them for biological pest control and to clean up oil spills.