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Old Man's Beard
old man's beard
Old Man's Beard, photographed at Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County, in December 2014.

First thing to know is that old man's beard isn't a plant, at least not in the usual sense, but rather a lichen — two different organisms, an algae and a fungus, combining together to form something completely different. Taxonomically speaking, they are members of the fungi kingdom.

Old Man's Beard is a member of the genus Usnea, a rather ubiquitous group of lichens found pretty much all over North America, and in fact, all over the world. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's PLANTS database lists about 120 species and subspecies living on the continent. They are all considered beard lichens, although they have a few other common names, including tree's dandruff, woman's long hair and tree moss. Although the specific fungi and algae vary per Usnea species, they are always from the same class, or division.

Old man's beard is pale greenish-gray in color, and has long, hair-like strands, the source of their common names. Old man's beard looks similar to Spanish moss, which is a flowering plant and completely unrelated, except for its scientific name, which is Tilandsia usneoides, "of usnea."

Old man's beard is more elastic than Spanish moss; pull it and it will stretch a bit. Pull Spanish moss and it will break. It's also finer in appearance, more hair-like than Spanish moss, and a little more unruly looking.

Like almost all lichens, old man's beard is edible, if prepared correctly.

old man's beard

The problem is lichens are high in acid, and the key to making them palatable is to soak them in several changes of water to raise the pH before eating. According to Eat the Weeds, old man's beard is less acidic than other lichens but still needs to be soaked first. It is high in both carbohydrates and vitamin C. Bon appetit!

Old man's lichen also has sat on the traditional medicine shelf for thousands of years to control fevers, as an expectorant and as a remedy for whole bunch of other conditions. It's has been used to dress wounds, and it is believed to have antibacterial and antiviral compounds.

More recently, it's been touted as a weight control product, although there is evidence that it might cause liver damage. Usnic acid, sodium usniate, is the key ingredient and also the source of the problem.

Old man's beard and other usnea are members of Parmeliaceae, a large family of lichens.

Photographs by David Sedore
Photographs by David Sedore
Links for Old Man's Beard
Institute for Regional Conservation Natives for Your Neighborhood Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants USDA PLANTS Database Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants
  Flora of North America     Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.