Gray-green draperies of lichen hang from a coastal pine tree. Easily mistaken for old man’s beard, this scruffy lichen is found growing along the coast and in inland areas with fog. If you look close, you’ll see that the strands of lichen are composed of lacy, net-like pieces–instead of single, hair-like strands. This is lace lichen, or Ramalina menziesii.
Though it looks like old man’s beard (Usnea) and Alectoria, the presence of netting–as well as the lack of a springy central cord–are distinctive.
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.