Hair lichens are mysterious, slow-growing life forms that only grow in areas with clean, pristine air and plenty of moisture. During a visit to a national park, one can sometimes see these lichens drooping off of trees in old growth forests. In the past, Native peoples of North America used hair lichens both for nourishment and medicinal purposes. This article will address the identification, food uses, medicinal uses, and warnings associated with hair lichens.
Tufted, hair-like lichens, most often hanging on trees, or occasionally on dead branches on the forest floor. One of the few species of plant still alive today that uses fragmentation as its main way of reproducing. However, hair-lichens also use small, powdery propagules from white dots (soredia).
Edibility and palatability of lichens varies greatly. the edibility of lichens is sometime even determined by the type of tree on which the lichen resides and the air quality. Large volumes of hair lichens were often collected by first-nations tribes by either climbing or feeling trees, and then using poles to strip the lichens. Five or six lichen-covered trees could provide a family with a lichen supply for a year. Raw lichens are often quite bitter, and so are more palatable after soaking in water for extended periods of time and/or adding baking soda or ashes. Hair lichens were often steamed for 48 hours with onions for flavouring. Both fresh and cooked lichen was dried and ground into flour for addition to many foods and as supplemental flour to wheat flour in the baking of pastries. Since hair-lichens grow on trees, they can provide a reliable food source year-round.
In the Middle Ages, old man's beard hair-lichens were used to treat lung diseases. In Scandinavia, it was used to cure chapped skin. Old man's beard has been scientifically proven to be a antibiotic substance, because it contains usnic acids, and is effective in the treatment of tuberculosis. In china, it is used to this day to treat this disease.
Witches' broom provides a yellow dye, and can be fermented to produce alcohol. Lichens are very sensitive to sulphur dioxide and other pollutants and can be used to monitor air quality. Lichens have disappeared from polluted areas very quickly.
Edible lichens are often difficult to distinguish from inedible ones. Some hair-lichens are poisonous. Soaking in water and baking soda helps remove any toxins. Test lichens in an area before collecting, to ensure they are edible. Remember that this article is no way is intended to offer medical advice; it is merely an interesting resource for those who would like to become more familiar with some useful plants. Experiment with wild plants at your own risk.