Lichens litter the forest floor, shaken loose from the upper limbs of the trees by the winter storms. Old man’s beard is one of the most recognizable: a pale greenish tuft of long hair-like tendrils. My favorite thing about this lichen are the flat, fringed discs that are some tufts. These are the apothecia, or fruiting bodies–I think they look like amoebas, or maybe stars, or maybe confetti. Delightful either way.
Old man’s beard is actually a generic name for the various members of the Usnea genus–which can be hard for a layperson to tell apart. But the genus itself is readily distinguished from others that look similar because it has a tough central cord running down each strand. If you gently tug on a piece of Usnea, the green outer covering cracks and separates, revealing the interior white cord which stretches like a bungee cord.
Usnea has long been used medicinally–as a bandage and antibiotic for rustic wound treatment, as sanitary napkins and in baby’s diapers. Western tribes such as the Makah used it to make mattresses in their seasonal camps. Modern herbalists have used it to treat lung and respiratory tract ailments.