By Micaela Foley
You’ve most likely come across Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) if you’ve taken a walk in the woods recently. Ubiquitous in its native forests of North America, Europe, and Asia, Turkey Tail grows in striped, layered, cloud-like clusters on decomposing hardwood logs. Turkey Tail is a wonderful, abundant medicinal mushroom to forage–especially during the winter, while other herbs hibernate–as it boasts potent immune-boosting properties.
Botany & Etymology
Turkey Tail is a saprophytic fungus in the Polyporaceae family. Though there are several look-alikes, the true Turkey Tail mushroom has varied, well-defined concentric rings of color on its cap. The colloquial name, Turkey Tail, references its resemblance to a turkey’s tail feathers; the fruiting body grows in masses about 2-4 inches wide. Its Latin name, Trametes versicolor, clues us into its physical characteristics. Versicolor literally means “of many colors,” often brown, dark blue, white or off-white, and orange. Trametes means “thin” and indeed, Turkey Tail is a thin, flexible mushroom, about 1-3 mm thick. Turkey Tail’s colorful cap usually has a fine layer of soft fuzz, while its underside has tiny, barely visible pores (as opposed to gills). You should not harvest Turkey Tail mushrooms that are pale, tough, and covered in green algae
Recorded use of Turkey Tail as medicine dates back to the 15th century. This mushroom is detailed in the expansive, esteemed Traditional Chinese Materia Medica, Bencao Gangmu, or “Great Pharmacopoeia.” In it, Turkey Tail (known in Chinese as Yunzhi), prepared as a tea, is said to harmonize the Shen (spirit) and the Qi (vital life force), and to strengthen bone and tendon. Turkey Tail is also understood in Traditional Chinese Medicine to clear dampness, increase energy, modulate the immune system, and strengthen the lungs, stomach, and spleen. Since the 1960s, extracts from Turkey Tail mushrooms have been studied as complementary cancer treatments in China and Japan. In the 1970s in both China and Japan, an extract from Turkey Tail mushroom, Polysaccharide-K, was approved as an adjuvant oncology therapy.
Turkey Tail is bitter, salty, and neutral energetically. Its actions are adaptogenic, anti-microbial, anti-oxidant, anti-tumor, anti-viral, and immunomodulating. Turkey Tail is viable for a broad spectrum of support, below are some of its most common applications in the practice of modern, Western herbalism.
Potent Immune Support
Turkey Tail’s perhaps most well-known and compelling effect is on the immune system, as an immune modulator. Like a lot of medicinal mushrooms, Turkey Tail works with the body’s intelligence to balance the immune system by boosting it when it’s underperforming and regulating it when it’s acting in excess. As one of the most extensively studied medicinal mushrooms for its usefulness in cancer treatment protocols, we know that Turkey Tail contains various polysaccharides and beta-glucans. Several studies show that the aforementioned PSK enhanced lymphocyte numbers and increased the tumoricidal action of Natural Killer cells. Turkey Tail also protects healthy cells from radio/chemotherapy during conventional treatment and helps to prevent relapses related to immune system defects. Turkey Tail is also quite useful in cases of lingering infection and post-viral fatigue.
Prebiotic for Optimal Gut Health
Like many mushrooms, both edible and medicinal, Turkey Tail functions as a prebiotic by quite literally feeding the beneficial bacteria in the gut. This allows a healthy colony of bacteria to flourish and maintain an optimal balance. Further, a thriving microbiome has positive effects on the whole body, including the brain and emotional well-being. Prebiotics are essentially a form of indigestible plant fiber. This fiber also helps to normalize bowel movements, maintain bowel and colon health, and control cholesterol and blood sugar levels. One clinical study found that an extract of Turkey Tail mushroom helped to prevent excessive weight gain in mice that ate a high fat diet.
Respiratory & Genitourinary
Aside from its use as a complementary therapy to cancer treatments, one of Turkey Tail’s most popular uses in China and Japan is as a remedy for respiratory infections. In cases of respiratory infection and during viruses and cases of flu, Turkey Tail works to reduce phlegm, strengthen the lungs, and support the immune system. Turkey Tail also helps to regenerate the body’s mucous membranes, which can greatly improve long-term respiratory issues like asthma and sinusitis. Similarly, Turkey Tail works on the urinary and uterine mucosa, so it may be appropriate in an herbal protocol meant to strengthen or repair the bladder, urinary tract, and uterus. Sometimes it is given with Cordyceps as preparation for fertility/pregnancy.
Methods of Medicinal Use
There are so many ways to use Turkey Tail! Here are just a few suggestions:
Capsules, or powder – Taking a premeasured capsule is perhaps the most convenient way to consume a consistent dose of Turkey Tail. Make sure you’re sourcing from a reputable brand, and follow the instructions provided. Alternatively, you can make your own capsules with dehydrated and powdered Turkey Tail, or simply add the powder to smoothies, soups, stews, rice dishes, and the like.
For cancer protocols, the University of Minnesota and Bastyr University found that about 6 grams of Turkey Tail per day appeared to lead to faster immune recovery after radiotherapy.
Teas or Decoction – Turkey Tail can be made into a simple decoction and drunk as tea. Simply simmer a few pieces of dried Turkey Tail in water for about 30 minutes, or until the water is reduced by half. Turkey Tail’s fruiting body is high in chitin, a woody cellulose structure that makes this mushroom not exactly edible. Therefore, a decoction is a great way to consume the medicinal properties of this mushroom. It has a mild, earthy, mushroom flavor that’s somewhat pleasant. I like to add some form of vitamin C (berries, lemon peel, etc) to any mushroom preparation, as this potentiates its absorption.
Tincture – Double extractions (or, the combination of tincture and decoction) are the best method for preparing medicinal mushroom medicine. This is because some of the properties are water-soluble, and some are alcohol soluble. Most folks agree that making preparations with dried mushrooms is best for determining the final water content of the extract, at least 25% alcohol for preservation purposes. As such, there are several ways to prepare a double extraction, try the one that makes sense to you!
No known safety precautions. Turkey Tail mushroom is not edible unless processed into a powder or decoction; eating the fruiting body will lead to gastrointestinal upset. As with all herbs and medicines, please consult a trusted herbalist and your doctor prior to use.
- Benson, KF, Stamets, P., Davis, R., et al. “The mycelium of the Trametes versicolor (Turkey tail) mushroom and its fermented substrate each show potent and complementary immune activating properties in vitro.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6889544/
- Hobbs, C. “Medicinal Mushrooms” https://www.christopherhobbs.com/library/featured-articles/mushroom-articles/
- Innott, J. “Turkey Tail Mushroom: A thousand year love story” http://mecklenburghsquaregarden.org.uk/the-turkey-tail-mushroom-a-thousand-year-story/
- Keller, A. “Turkey Tail Mushroom Mycelium Is Safe and May Enhance Immune Response in Women with Breast Cancer in Phase I Trial” https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/96/table-of-contents/hg96-resrvw-turkeytail/