December 16. One measure of the special nature of this corner of the world is that at least half the time I mention Usnea, people know what it is. I think of late fall and early winter as the season of Usnea, so I’m noticing and appreciating it now.
Worldwide, there are 600 species of Usnea. Our Pacific Northwest species is sometimes called Old Man’s Beard for its wispy dangling habit. It looks a lot like Spanish Moss, that constant companion of southern oaks (which is not actually a moss but a bromeliad). Usnea is not a moss either, but a lichen. And lichens, I love to remember, are formed of symbiotic relationships between fungi and algae, two very different life forms that come together to create a third totally distinct being.
Usnea anchors its pale green filaments to tree bark, here especially the twigs of deciduous oaks. When the trees are in leaf the Usnea remains unnoticed. When the Black Oaks drop their leaves, the trees are revealed not as skeletons of bare branches but as fully clothed Usnea scaffolds, pale fuzzy branches highlighted against the darker firs growing among them. Here’s a picture of the transformation in progress.
Usnea is both an indicator and maintainer of air quality, declining in vigor as it traps pollutants. It has strong antibiotic and antifungal properties, making it ideal for dressing wounds. Not that I’ve ever used it in that capacity, but good to know. As an internal medicinal it’s even more useful, especially through the winter months, as its antibiotic properties focus especially on upper respiratory infections. As a winter cold preventative it functions as an immune system tonic. The sudden appearance of whole trees of Usnea reminds me to make a batch of tincture (the convenient way to take it, though a tea works also). Winter storms prune dead twigs and branches from the oaks, and these provide plenty of Usnea for medicine, with some left over to use as kindling, and plenty to leave for the deer to eat.
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