It’s iffy whether or not you’ll see a wild turkey during a walk in the woods at this time of year. But it’s a surefire bet that you will see the striking, turkey tail fungus. For that, I’m always grateful.
Turkey tail, Trametes versicolor, is one of the most common fungi growing on the sides of logs or trees. It is a stalkless mushroom, called a shelf fungus, which looks much like a fan with scalloped edges.
Turkey tail forms 4” fans that often overlap one another, forming dense rows or tiers. The fans have bands of color patterns in brown, white, tan, orange, maroon, grey, and sometimes even blue or purple, depending on the amount of light the fungus received. The bands alternate between light shades and dark shades. This banding pattern was thought to resemble the tail of a strutting turkey, thus the name.
Turkey tails grow from May to December, in the temperate regions of North America. In our Kankakee Sands area, they are found on hardwoods, stumps, and woody debris of black oak, white oak, and white pine.
Turkey tail fungus digests the lignin in wood, leaving cellulose behind. This is known as white rot. If you do find a turkey tail, I wouldn’t recommend pulling up a chair to watch the decomposition happen, it’s a very slow process, made even slower by the cooler temperatures. The nutrients and minerals in the wood are broken down over several years to be used by other forest and savanna plants, animals or insects.
Turkey tails are comprised of 80-90% water. And as my good friend Lisa always asks, “Well, can ya eat it?” Yes, but I don’t think you’d enjoy it very much. Humans find the turkey tail too tough and leathery, but the eastern grey squirrel and eastern box turtle like it just fine.
The term fungus is used for several groups of plants that are non-flowering. They produce no flowers, seeds, or fruits; they have no roots, stems or leaves; and they lack chlorophyll. Without chlorophyll, they are unable to photosynthesize and generate their own food. Fungus must subsist as parasites on living organisms, or saprophytes on dead organisms. Although that may sound a bit gruesome, there are many important fungi in our daily lives: yeast used in fermenting bread and beer, molds used in making blue cheese and penicillin, and tasty morel mushrooms.
The body of a fungus is called a mycelium and spends most of its time hidden away inside its host. The mycelium consists of an intricate network of microscopic threads called hyphae that attach to the host organism and invade it for nutrition.
When the environmental conditions are right with appropriate temperature and moisture, the fungus will produce a fruiting body, in the case of the turkey tail, the fruiting body is the pretty turkey tail shape that we see growing on trees. Fruiting bodies come in many interesting shapes and sizes depending on the type of fungus, but what they all have in common is that they produce spores. The spores ripen within the fruiting bodies and are carried by the wind to a new location where they will germinate when the conditions are favorable.
This holiday season, why not treat yourself to a walk at Conrad Station Savanna to hunt for turkey tail fungus? Who knows, maybe you’ll find a few tails of real turkeys, too!
The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is an 8,300-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.