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Old Man’s Beard

Old Man’s Beard / All Year / Edible

Other Common Names: (this refers to the lichen, not the species of Clematis that goes by the same common name).

Tree’s dandruff, Woman’s long hair, Tree moss, Seaweed of the Mountain, Fish Bone Beard Lichen, String of Sausages Lichen

Latin Name:

Usnea species

Physical Characteristics: 

Gray green lichen that is much finer – and round – as opposed to many of the other pale, fruticose lichens that live nearby, such as oak moss, and Ramalina species. The key feature of Old man’s beard is that it looks like hair coming out of the branches and trunks of trees, and only grows to about 3cm in length, and is often about 1cm from the branch. Depending on the species and location, Usnea species lichens can be up to 10-20cm.

Habitat, Range and Distribution: 

Found growing on a range of trees throughout the temperate world. Conifers, oak and hawthorn seem to be particular favourites.

Conservation Considerations: 

Consider whether you really need to harvest lichen. Ideally choose not to unless it is enormously abundant. This lichen grows 3 to 5 mm each year, meaning that what can be harvested in a couple of seconds may have taken a decade to form.

Harvest Time and Techniques: 

Looking at branches that have fallen to the floor is a good way of finding accessible tufts of lichen. Try to always cut the tops of the thalli away with a sharp blade, leaving the rest of the lichen to regenerate. It can be found throughout the year.

Could Be Confused With, and Other Safety Notes:

The key features of this lichen is that it looks like little tufts of hair, and the strands are stretchy – think of it like the stretchy knicker test. If you stretch them enough, the outer green covering should recede, showing an inner white filament which is the fungal partner of the lichen. Other lichen species do not have this feature. Harvest away from areas with high levels of air pollution. If you start to experience stomach pains or skin irritation after eating this lichen, discontinue consumption.

Edible Uses: 

Prepare [any] lichens before eating. They contain acids (which help them live off rock and wood) which can cause gastric upset. 

This lichen has a very high carbohydrate content, but can taste quite bitter. After processing, it can be dried, or powdered and added to energy balls, crackers, and sauces that need thickening. It is a lichen that seems to have more medicinal than edible uses associated with it.

Medicinal Uses:

Usnea species have a particularly rich history of medicinal use for infections and immune support.

Extra Tips and Fun Facts:

Usnea was named for the Arabic word ushnah, meaning moss.

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