Horsehair Lichen

After a long, dry summer and fall we finally got rain! For months I could find no mushrooms, but now the fungi are beginning to pop up. The mosses and lichen are soft and supple after being leathery and brittle during the drought. More to explore and study!

Lichen, as I have mentioned before, are fungi that have evolved a symbiotic relationship with algae. The photosynthesizing algae live within the lichen and provide carbohydrates, proteins and nutrients to the lichen, while in turn the lichen provide protection and a “home” for the algae. Fascinating!

Horsehair lichen are composed of intricately branched filaments that often hang from conifers, or less frequently hardwoods, and resemble tangled masses of hair from the tail or mane of a horse. These lichen also will rarely grow on rocks. I believe this horsehair lichen is Bryoria fremontii. It could be one of several other species of Bryoria, however, recent molecular research has shown that many of these other named species are actually conspecific, i.e. belong to the same species.

Bryoria lichens rely mainly on fragmentation for dispersal. As the plant grows pieces break off and are carried by the wind, birds or animals to locations where new individuals can become established.

Medicinally Native Americans used a tea of horsehair lichen to treat digestive ailments. A poultice of this lichen reduced swelling.

Horsehair lichen is edible, although I have never tried eating it. Early Americans would steam the lichen in pits until it melted and formed a jelly-like mass. Once cooled this substance could be sliced and eaten or dried for future use. The taste of horsehair lichen, also called edible horsehair, is quite variable depending on the type of tree on which it grows.

Also called black tree lichen because of its dark brown or black color, horsehair lichen was and continues to be used as a source of yellow dye. The often thick masses of horsehair lichen were also used by native people as stuffing for pillows or as insulation in clothing or shoes.

In the winter deer and other ungulates eat horsehair lichen, which is reportedly very nutritious. Birds and small mammals also use this versatile plant as nesting material.

The photographs were taken along the Pacific Crest Trail near the Pit River (Shasta County CA).

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