Most polypores inhabit tree trunks or branches consuming the wood, but some soil-inhabiting species form mycorrhiza with trees. Polypores and their relatives corticioid fungi are the most important agents of wood decay. Thus, they play a very significant role in nutrient cycling and carbon dioxide production of forest ecosystems.
Over one thousand polypore species have been described to science, but a large part of the diversity is still unknown even in relatively well-studied temperate areas. Polypores are much more diverse in old natural forests with abundant dead wood than in younger managed forests or plantations. Consequently, a number of species have declined drastically and are under threat of extinction due to logging and deforestation.
Polypores are used in traditional medicine, and they are actively studied for their medicinal value and various industrial applications. Several polypore species are serious pathogens of plantation trees and are major causes of timber spoilage.
Bracket fungi, or shelf fungi, are among the many groups of fungi that compose the division Basidiomycota. Characteristically, they produce shelf- or bracket-shaped or occasionally circular fruiting bodies called conks that lie in a close planar grouping of separate or interconnected horizontal rows. Brackets can range from only a single row of a few caps, to dozens of rows of caps that can weigh several hundred pounds. They are mainly found on trees (living and dead) and coarse woody debris, and may resemble mushrooms. Some form annual fruiting bodies while others are perennial and grow larger year after year. Bracket fungi are typically tough and sturdy and produce their spores, called basidiospores, within the pores that typically make up the undersurface.
Because bracket fungi are defined by their growth form rather than phylogeny, the group contains members of multiple clades. Although the term classically was reserved for polypores, molecular studies have revealed some odd relationships. The beefsteak fungus, a well-known bracket fungus, is actually a member of the agarics. Other examples of bracket fungi include the sulphur shelf, birch bracket, dryad's saddle, artist's conk, and turkey tail. The name polypores is often used for a group that includes many of the hard or leathery fungi, which often lack a stipe, growing straight out of wood. "Polypore" is derived from the Greek words poly, meaning "much" or "many", and poros, meaning "pore".
The group includes many different shapes and forms that are common in the tropical forests, including the hard 'cup fungi' and the 'shell', 'plate' and 'bracket' fungus commonly found growing off logs and still standing dead trees.
The fungal individual that develops the fruit bodies that are identified as polypores resides in soil or wood as mycelium. Polypores are often restricted to either deciduous (angiosperm) or conifer (gymnosperm) host trees. Some species depend on a single tree genus (e.g. Piptoporus betulinus on birch, Perenniporia corticola on dipterocarps).