Medicinal Mushrooms: Turkey Tail and Birch Polypore
As I write this, it's autumn with fungi bursting out all over. Whilst I don't claim to be an expert (or any good at all really) at identifying mushrooms, there are a few that we know well and are happy to identify and harvest. Two of those are widely regarded as medicinal mushrooms: turkey tail and birch polypore.
For at least five millenia, mushrooms have been picked for their medicinal and nutritional value. Since the 1970s, the focus of research has largely been on cancer treatments.
There are many claims made for the medicinal value of mushrooms. Some are backed with research and evidence, though many of the claims might be regarded more as folklore than rooted in scientific fact.
I am only going to talk about 2 mushrooms which are considered medicinal here, and they are Turkey Tail and Birch Polypore. There are two reasons for that:
- these are the two medicinal mushrooms with which we are familiar
- these are very easy to identify.
Dried mushroom supplements are widely available and can be very expensive. Given these two reputedly health-promoting mushrooms are widely available and easy to spot, we prefer to gather and dry them for our own use.
I will say firstly what we always say: always forage responsibly. Only harvest what you plan to use, leave behind more than you take, ensure you adhere to the Code of Conduct for the Conservation and Enjoyment of Wild Plants and, most importantly, never, ever pick any wild plant or fungi unless you are 100% certain that you have correctly identified it. For the avoidance of doubt, this blog post is not intended to help you identify the mushrooms without using any other resource, you need a good mushroom guide (preferably a human one, especially if you're new to fungi identifying) to do that. If you're in the Sussex area, or can plan to be, Fergus the Forager runs some terrific courses on mushroom identification.
Turkey Tail Mushrooms
Turkey Tail mushrooms, whilst technically inedible, are believed to be of medicinal value. They are known by 3 latin names: Trametes versicolor, Coriolus versicolor, and Polyporus versicolor. All three names apply to the same common medicinal mushroom. They got their name because they bear more than a passing resemblance to a turkey's tail.
These beautiful mushrooms contain polysaccharide peptide (PSP) and polysaccharide krestin (PSK) which are believed to help the immune system respond to infection and minor illnesses like the common cold. Many therefore believe it can help patients who are receiving chemotherapy, and turkey tail mushrooms are considered valuable in the treatment of cancers (source). For example, a chemical derived from turkeytail fungus is used to treat gastric cancer in China and Japan.
Turkey tails grow all year round, in most parts of the world. They are incredibly pretty to look at with contrasting coloured stripes on the top, and a creamy white or white underneath with small pores. The colours on the top range from light brown and dark brown and even reddish-brown to light grey, dark grey and almost black. They present as multiple overlapping tiers of thin, tough, leathery, multicoloured brackets in woodland, usually on dead wood.
Turkey tails are pretty easy to identify. The key is the contrasting stripes on the top (as opposed to thin, overlapping mushrooms which are mostly one colour) together with the pores on the underside. If there are no pores and the mushroom is completely smooth on the underside instead, it's not a turkeytail. If you're identifying turkeytails for the first time, I would use more than this blog post. Get yourself a detailed identification book (see links below). The good news is they have no poisonous lookalikes, but there are similar mushrooms out there which are not turkey tails which are not said to have the same medicinal benefits.
Using Turkey Tail Mushrooms
Turkey Tail mushrooms are not pleasant to eat. You need to boil them or dry them to make a tea, tincture or a powdered supplement.
We dry ours on a windowsill above the radiator, on kitchen towel.
Then if the oven has been on and I remember, I pop them in to the warm oven to finish them off in the residual heat. You can also dry them in a dehydrator. However you dry them, ensure they are totally dry before you store them.
Once dried, grind them to a powder in a pestle and mortar or a coffee grinder. Then you can add a teaspoon of mushroom powder to boiling water to make a tea. On its own it's pretty 'earthy', so you can add other things to that to make it a bit more palatable (fresh ginger, turmeric, honey...). Or add it to another drink, like homemade golden milk.
I don't tend to boil them in water because it takes about an hour to extract the goodies from the mushrooms. But if you have lots of fresh turkey tails and don't want to dry them all, you can also produce a tea that way.
Birch Polypore Mushrooms
Birch Polypore Fomitopsis betulina is also technically inedible. It has a long history of being regarded as medicinal in similar ways to the turkey tail. Birch Polypore is much bigger, they can be anything from 5 to 30cm wide and are kidney or rough shell-shaped.
You will find Birch Polypore exclusively on dead or dying birch trees from around August to November. You may well see them outside of these months, but do check them. Once they get old they can start to rot - a maggot in your tea is not the best.
Birch Polypore tends to be smooth and light brown on the top. It has a white porous underneath, almost like polystyrene, which turns more brown as it matures. It has no look-alikes and you can identify it pretty easily, not least of all because you'll only find it on birch trees. Again, it is assumed that you are not relying on this blog post to identify your birch polypore - make sure you are certain you have found it with the use of a good guide, preferably a human one.
Birch Polypore also staunches bleeding. When it's very fresh, you can use a knife to remove the surface of the white underneath and stick it to your flesh as a natural plaster. It's also known as razorstrop fungus, and was traditionally used to sharpen knife blades.
Birch Polypore was found on Oetzi the Iceman, the man whose 5300 year old body was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991. Which is very cool.
This mushroom contains a compound called piptamine, which is considered to be an antibiotic. It is anti viral, anti inflammatory and has been used to treat stomach complaints. If eaten in large quantities it can act as a laxative, but it is so bitter and inedible that you might struggle to consume enough to cause a problem. And Birch Polypore also has alleged benefits to cancer patients which are the subject of research (source).
Using Birch Polypore
The easiest way to get the benefits of birch polypore is, once again, in a tea. You can dehydrate them very easily by slicing up and laying on a windowsill or a rack.
Once it's completely dry you can store the slices in jars. Take a piece, pour over boiling water and leave for a few minutes for your tea. Again if the taste isn't doing it for you, add some spices or other flavouring of your choice. Turmeric, ginger and birch polypore is a lovely anti-inflammatory combination, infused together in a teapot.
Edible Mushrooms - a Forager's Guide to the Wild Fungi of Britain, Ireland and Europe - Geoff Dann
An Initial Guide to the Identification of Mushrooms and Toadstools - Paul Nichol
Mycellium Running - How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World - Paul Stamets
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