Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Tales of the Turkey Tail

Thanks to very successful conservation efforts, you may be lucky enough to see a wild turkey if you take a walk in the woods after your Thanksgiving dinner. But it would not take much luck at all to encounter the turkey tail fungus, Trametes versicolor on your walk. This subtly beautiful fungus probably is the most common wood rotting fungus on dead hardwoods throughout North America (Gilbertson & Ryvarden, North American Polypores, 1987). In fact, you may not need to leave your neighborhood to see turkey tails on old stumps like these flowering cherries we removed a couple of years ago.

New fruiting bodies of the turkey tail fungus Trametes versicolor on a flowing cherry stump

The common name of the turkey tail fungus refers to the semicircular rosettes of varying colors in the fruiting bodies (the spore producing part) of this fungus. The species name versicolor describes both the multicolored bands seen at different times within an individual specimen and the color variations seen among different specimens.
Bands of color variations in an old fruiting body

  T. versicolor can be distinguished from similar species by the tiny pores visible on the underside of the fruiting bodies. Like mushrooms, this fungus belongs to the basidiomycetes, but unlike the button mushrooms you may have had with your Thanksgiving dinner, T. versicolor is a polypore, a basidiomycete that produces spores within pores rather than on gills. Also unlike many mushrooms, the fruiting body is somewhat leathery (not fleshy) and long lived. The fruiting bodies first appeared on our cherry stumps in September and have been expanding and changing color since then.

Small pores covering the lower side of the fruiting body

 Trametes versicolor is one of the white rot fungi, indicating that the fungus can decay lignin, which along with cellulose, is a main component of wood. White rot fungi such as T. versicolor break down the dark lignin in wood, leaving the lighter colored cellulose behind. Other so-called brown rot fungi break down cellulose, leaving behind dark lignin. Many species of both white rot and brown rot fungi cause rots in living trees, but T. versicolor is not a pathogen and decays only nonliving materials. When you gather up piles of leaves and fallen sticks and branches in the fall, you can begin to appreciate that decay organisms such as T. versicolor perform a very necessary function in nature. Without them, we’d soon be inundated with layers and layers of plant debris. In fact, a recent theory proposes that the evolution of white rot fungi brought about the end of the massive accumulation of plant materials characteristic of the coal age.

As you might guess, T. versicolor has been studied for its potential to remove lignin in various industrial processes. It also is has been studied for medicinal purposes and is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Not surprisingly, the dried fruiting bodies have been used as dyes of protein based fibers like wool and silk (Binion et al, Macrofungi Associated with oaks of Eastern North America, 2008). The turkey tail fungus is commonly sold in craft stores for use in seasonal floral arrangements, and if you would like to add a touch of turkey to your Thanksgiving decor, the source may be as close as your own backyard. 


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