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Usnea – Old Man’s Beard

3-18-14 lichen 014This lichen, and other members of the Usnea genus, can often be found growing on the branches of less than healthy trees in the Northeast. The algal component of these algae/fungi phenomena takes advantage of the lack of leaves on dying trees by using the available sunlight to photosynthesize. Usnea, also known as Old Man’s Beard, grows in little hair-like tufts and has a diagnostic pale yellow, elastic central cord. In addition to being an indicator of air pollution (its size is greatly decreased if there is pollution), Usnea has been used by herbalists as an immune system tonic for hundreds of years.

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7 responses

  1. Tom Stearns

    Hi Mary,

    I have loved your daily posts and we read them with our kids – thanks. I am a big usnea fan and have harvested it for medicine for 20 years or so although it has been a while. Your photo today seems to depict the other species that is commonly confused with usnea. It has a spongy inner structure rather than the fishing-line like central cord that you describe and it doesn’t have medicinal properties that I know of. They almost always grow together. I might be wrong, but just thought that I would use it as an excuse to say hi. Love your blog. Tom

    Tom Stearns, Founder and Head Seedsman High Mowing Organic Seeds (802) 472-6174 ext. 114 desk (802) 224-6301 cell ________________________________

    March 18, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    • Hi Tom,
      Thank you so much for catching this! Do you know the name/genus & species of the look alike lichen? I would like to alert readers to my mistake, and tell them what this lichen actually is! Many thanks. Mary

      March 18, 2014 at 4:52 pm

  2. peggy

    Mary-I love love love your blog and read it daily. Have learned so much- this winter fabulous!!! Learning is so much fun with you.
    Wanted to just put in one thought on looking at this lichen, and am glad to be mistaken. I THINK this lichen is VERY like Usnea, which I collect for herbal tincturing. It’s often found on the same branch and even in the same tuft (maddening!), but this particular one (whose name I do not know, but recognize from testing for the thread over and over) may not be Usnea. In characteristic, Usneais even more thinly threadlike overall in it’s look- rather than having the flattened bits at its tips as in this picture. Somehow even the fatter parts of Usnea are more rounded in their appearance, and the smaller ends very much more thready. But …fact check me on this . I have more than once been surprised by one of those fun anomalies.-best, Peg

    March 18, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    • Hi Peggy,
      Another reader wrote in with the same opinion as yourself, so I am quite sure I am mistaken…thank you so much for bringing it to my attention! If you felt like sending the genus and species of the lichen in the photograph to me, that would be great! Not to worry if you don’t have the time. Mary

      March 18, 2014 at 4:57 pm

  3. ILL! Not an adolescent comment, it stands for I Love Lichen! I always stop to admire it wherever I go, but have never really studied it in scientific detail. Great to learn about – I always called this reindeer moss, is that another common name or something different? I’ve noted how it is like a sponge, when it dries it gets stiff and hard and then soaks up moisture to become soft again.

    March 18, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    • Hi Eliza,
      Fortunately some readers more knowledgeable than I recognized that I misidentified today’s lichen…when I figure out what genus and species it really is, I’ll let everyone know. I am a novice with lichens (obviously), but I believe reindeer lichen is a different species from the one pictured, though they may be in the same family. I will see what I can find out, once I identify today’s pictured lichen!

      March 18, 2014 at 5:00 pm

  4. Jean Bergstrom

    Hi Mary, First, I want to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. I do nature awareness programs for women and always tell them about your great blog. I just wanted to point out what I think may be a mistake in today’s blog about Usnea. Your description is certainly accurate, but I think that today’s blog picture is not actually Usnea. I believe it to be of the genus Ramalina. Usnea is more hairy and is round. If you look at the picture here, the branches are flat and if you were to look for that inner white core, I am quite sure that you would not find it on this lichen. I am an herbalist and Usnea grows scarcely where I live in western Massachusetts, but when I travel north or to California or Oregon, I keep my eyes open for it, because it is an herb that I use quite a bit for its antiviral and antibacterial qualities. I hope that this is helpful. Thanks for the great blog and keep up the good work.


    Jean Bergstrom

    March 18, 2014 at 4:54 pm

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