Friday, February 23, 2018

Foraging: how to identify turkey tail mushrooms for natural, cancer-fighting medicines. 4 simple steps

The medicinal turkey tail mushroom is in the foreground here, showcasing it's iconic banding and zoning.

 Identification difficulty: Beginner 

Hi everyone!

Last year I posted about how to dry turkey tail mushrooms and make a cancer-fighting and immune-strengthening tea.

Now I'm back, because new research has come up in the past year, and I can provide updated information on just how turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) are performing in their clinical trials. (Here's a hint: they are doing well) and also science has given us more information on dosage and potential adverse reactions. (There aren't many). I will cover the updated research in a future post.

But for now, I want to show you how to identify Trametes versicolor (previously known as Coriolus versicolor) on your own, if you find it in the woods. Right now, preparations of this mushroom are only produced by a few suppliers, and are therefor expensive. However, this is a widely-distributed fungus, and frequently fruits abundantly, so there is no reason why you can't forage it on your own for free.

Special note on Turkey Tails: I have listed this ID as a beginner level difficulty. In fact, it can actually be quite hard to tell Trametes versicolor from some other varieties of Trametes. However, none of these similar looking mushrooms are poisonous, which is why I still consider this a beginner level mushroom.

So, let's talk turkey!

Identifying turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor)*

(I will be providing a picture for each ID feature).

1. Growth location & pattern:
Turkey tail mushrooms grow in overlapping shelves exclusively on dead wood. Each individual shelf (mushroom cap) can be up to 6"wide, but is never more than 2.5" from where it attaches to the wood to the edge.  On occasion, they will form circular forms, which will still be overlapping shelves, like shown below.

2. Texture
Turkey tails are thin-fleshed, for a mushroom. The shelves are only about 1mm at the edge, and 2-3 mm at the attachment to the wood. The tops of turkey tails are covered in fine hairs, and they have a velvety feel. The overall feel of the mushroom, when bent between your fingers, should feel like leather.

3. Color and pattern
Turkey tail mushrooms should feature bands of color which radiate out in half-circles. These can be quite variable (as implied by the Latin name, versicolor). Colors can include browns, beiges, grays, blues and even purple or plum tones. The edges should be the lightest part, white when super fresh, beige when a little older, and light tan when the mushroom is dried out.
  • Similar looking mushrooms that lack dramatic banding -- all the colors are more or less the same with only subtle variations, then you probably have another species. See below for info on Trametes hirsuta, Trametes pubescens, Trametes ochracea, Trametes villosa, and Stereum ostrea.

4. Pore surface (underside)
The underside of Turkey tails should be white (beige in older specimens). The mushrooms should have tiny pores on the underside of the shelf. These pores are just barely detectable to a good set of eyes, older eyes might need a magnifying glass. The general rule of thumb is about 2-4 pores per millimeter.
  • If your mushroom has a smooth underside, or if the pores are large and easy to see, you have another species. More on that in look-alikes below.
Click on the image to enlarge

So that's really it, just 4 steps to Turkey Tail mushroom identification. Follow these and you won't get confused by anything poisonous or deadly, though there is an extensive list of look-alike species (and how to tell them apart) below.

If you found this post useful, please share it on Pinterest, Facebook or G+.

*As always you should never accept anything you read on the internet without verifying it for yourself with either a local expert or several publications. Colors can vary from monitor to monitor, and images are not as clear as in printed materials. Personally, before I eat anything I verify it with at least 3 reliable sources. I have found this to be a remarkably good way of ensuring my safety when foraging.

Look-alike species 

As we mentioned above, there are a LOT of look alike mushrooms for the turkey tail. However, as long as you note the growth on wood, the leathery flesh with bands of color, and the underside NOT having gills, nothing here is poisonous, just confusing. 

Trametes ochracea, the Ochre Trametes
This mushroom is far and away the closest look-alike for Trametes versicolor. Trametes ochracea has bands of color all in the brown family. It also has a similar pore surface.

Compare this image of an all brown Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor):
All brown turkey tail mushrooms, like these, are more common on the West Coast.
Gray shades are more common on the East Coast, South and Mid-West.
These were shot by me in Oregon.

With this Wikipedia image of the Ochre Trametes, Trametes ochracea:
The ochre Trametes. Photo credit Jerzy OpioĊ‚a, image via Wikipedia.
The main difference is that Trametes ochracea is firmer-fleshed. Unlike the leathery T. versicolor, the ochre Trametes is not easily bent or curled, it will break instead (if you have the strength.)

T. ochracea is non-poisonous, and may even have medicinal qualities, we just don't know! So if you mix these 2 up and make a tea from T. ochracea, you won't be getting the cancer-busting benefits of T. versicolor, but you won't be doing any harm either.

Stereum ostrea, the false turkey tail
While all the mushrooms we will be discussing in this section can be called false turkey tails, only Stereum ostrea gets confused so often that it gets the nickname "False Turkey Tail".

In this photo from Wikipedia, shot by Arthur Chapman on Flickr shows how similar the upper surface is:

However, underneath the mushroom will be smooth -- like parchment -- and not have any pores, even under magnification. This is because it is actually a crust fungi.

Stereum ostrea is not listed as poisonous, however it's also not listed as edible in anyway.

Trametes villosa
The pore surface on this mushroom gives it away, but at first glance you can think you hit the turkey tail jackpot! This mushroom is not listed as poisonous, but should be avoided because there is no edibility data either. The pores of Trametes villosa are much larger--easily visible to the naked ye, almost appearing like pencil dots.
The large pore surface of T. villosa makes it easy to tell from T. versicolor, if you know what you are looking for.

Trametes hirsuta & pubescens
Below are two examples of Trametes species often confused for Turkey Tail.  It's important to note that they both have pale cap surfaces with only subtle bands of color.

 T. hirsuta has shades of white, beige and light gray, and may have mid-tone grays, but lacks any brown areas. (Make sure you have some browns for Turkey Tail).

T. hirsuta
Photo credit: James Lindsey's Ecology of Commanster Site, via Wikipedia.

And T. pubescens has shades of white and beige. This mushroom is also generally larger than the turkey tail (but not always), and is more often found singularly, or in small groups that don't closely overlap. T. pubescens is also much woodier than T. versicolor, and will most likely break instead of bending--unless it is super fresh.

T. pubescens

Photo credit: Holgar Krisp via Wikipedia


  1. I found your blog from Pinterest and I absolutely love it! You share such great information in a responsible way and give readers just what they need without rambling. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom!

    1. I'm so so glad you enjoy! I keep trying to post more, but I just have so many things going on!

  2. Thanks so much! Really good interesting factual read!

  3. Wow! Just the info I needed!Thanks so very much. Here in the Oak forest of NorCal I am surrounded by these beauties and no clear info. You are awesome!

    1. I'm not surprised you have a lot--Norther California is famous for its prolific fungal fruiting. I'm glad the post helped. Happy foraging!

  4. super good info, I didn't know the orange ones were bad... but I've been allergic to mushrooms for years, so I don't normally eat them. but my son does, he eats vegan for the most part, so I will def pass this on. thanks again!

    1. Not all the orange ones are bad, some are very tasty, like Chicken of the woods and chanterelles. But yes, be careful of orange ones that grow on wood and have gills underneath