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How Can You Tell a True Turkey Tail from an Imposter?

by on November 28, 2013

Turkey's tail (Trametes versicolor). Photo: Tom Potterfield
Turkey's tail (Trametes versicolor). Photo: Tom Potterfield

Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) is a species of fungus that closely resembles—you guessed it—a turkey’s tail. As a bracket fungus, named because of its shelf-like form, its job is to break down either the lignin or cellulose in rotting wood.

But here’s a Thanksgiving — and beyond — conundrum: there’s an imposter out there, the false turkey tail (Stereum hirsutum). And there are several species of bracket fungi anyway. So how can you tell if you have a “true” turkey tail?

From the top side or cap of a mushroom, many of the bracket fungus species look quite similar. Turkey tail has a highly variable color range, most often within the brown to red range while false turkey tail often has a bright orange hue. Both species are highly zonate meaning they have separate concentric color zones, and surfaces that are velvety to touch. As if that’s not confusing enough in the field, Trichaptum abietinum, which lacks a common name, looks somewhat like a faded turkey’s tail with some washed out color variability and zonation.

But fortunately, on the flip side, they couldn’t be more different. Debbie Viess, co-founder of the Bay Area Mycological Society, says the best way to check what species you have is to look at its underside. The underside of a mushroom is called the hymenium or fertile surface, where spores are produced and then drop to the ground.

As a polypore, turkey’s tail holds its spores in tubes, so its underside should display tiny holes visible to the naked eye.

Pores on the underside of a turkey's tail (Trametes versicolor).  Photo: Amadej Trnkoczy

Pores on the underside of a turkey tail (Trametes versicolor). Photo: Amadej Trnkoczy

As a crust fungus, the false turkey’s tail has a smooth to slightly wrinkly underside with no visible pores.

The flat underside of a false turkey's tail (Stereum hirsutum). Photo: Amadej Trnkoczy

The flat underside of a false turkey tail (Stereum hirsutum). Photo: Amadej Trnkoczy

Trichaptum abietinum is also a polypore but rather than pores or a smooth surface, it has little teeth or bumps of tissue where its spores are produced. Plus, you can’t miss its brilliant lilac cast.

'Teeth' on the underside of a Trichaptum abietinum. Photo: Boriss Lariushin

‘Teeth’ on the underside of a Trichaptum abietinum. Photo: Boriss Lariushin

Adding one more to the mix Lenzites betulina is a polypore that possesses gills rather pores or a smooth surface, closely resembling the underside of an oyster mushroom.

Gills on the underside of a Lenzites betulina. Photo: Jason Hollinger

Gills on the underside of a Lenzites betulina. Photo: Jason Hollinger

“They’re always making you guess,” said Viess, “But that’s kind of fun because no one wants to be a know-it-all.”

A bird? A bug? Something strange in the natural world nearby? Ask us and we’ll find the answer!

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Insook Gordy on October 29th, 2014 at 2:02 pm

Very helpful Thank you.

steve on January 3rd, 2015 at 4:02 pm

Good pics and descriptions! I recently found some turkey tails here in the my yard and finaly feel comfortable proceeding to boil and drink with tea now. Thanks..

Linda . on January 7th, 2015 at 5:24 pm

I have taken several photos of turkey tail mushrooms on recent nature walks.Your photos and explanations were very helpful in my research. I was delighted to discover that not only are they beautiful, but medicinal. Accurate identification is crucial. Thanks so much.

Len on August 24th, 2015 at 4:54 pm

Thank you. This is very helpful….

hugo torrado on September 12th, 2015 at 3:43 am

Test mushroom with your skin,take a tiny pice of mushroom and placed over the arm put clear tape over one layer of scotch tape,if skin turn red is poison, after few minutes with the skin,(skin sensitive test)

lilly on March 10th, 2016 at 3:20 pm

This is quite informative, i have a lot growing in my yard.

Cally Underwood on April 28th, 2016 at 9:22 am

I have a photo of what I thought was turkey tail fungus, but now not sure. On the fungus are some strange little black projections, which appeared in a photo I took with my macro lens. I did not see the little projections until I looked at the photo. What are those little black projections. I can send a photo, or you can view the photo on my Flickr page:

Thanks for any help.

Ian T on December 1st, 2016 at 10:56 am

Cally. Those are just a mold or other fungus growing on the mushroom but those are not Turkey. See the teeth on the underside. The picture of the pores at the top doesn’t look like turkey tail either. The mushroom is way to thick. Turkey tail are thin, tough and leathery, not thick like the picture shows.

Heather Joy on February 5th, 2017 at 8:17 pm

Cally Underwood: Your photos look like they could be Trichaptum abietinum but I can’t really see the underside that well, they have gills & a lilac tint.

El parent on October 8th, 2017 at 10:54 am

Very nicely differentiated.

ember on January 30th, 2018 at 5:39 pm

What trees do turkey tails like best?

Aimee on April 16th, 2018 at 4:09 pm

I have been taking Turkey Tail extract for years now. Recently I started to purchase it from a different company because it’s just so expensive at the former place. I have used 2 different brands. I received my new order in the mail today. It is dark. The other 2 brands that I previously used were very light in color. Should I be concerned that this is not a true extract? It states it is Organic Turkey Tail and 35% Organic Alcohol Purified Water. Thanks!

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