Old Man’s Beard

Over the past month I’ve traveled from the land of “old man’s beard” west to the land of “old man’s beard” east. “Old man’s beard” is the common name given to the hairy lichen that grows on trees along the Pacific Coast of America from Northern California to Washington State—and in several other regions around the world. I first saw it when I was in my early thirties on my first trip west of the Rockies—to Northern California. I expressed my surprise to someone there that Spanish moss actually grew on the West Coast (my having become familiar with Spanish moss as a college student in South Carolina), and I was informed that it was not the same plant, and that they were really two very different organisms that only looked similar. And, yes, this Ambling post will seek to clarify the difference!

Marge and I returned a couple days ago from a visit with our son Dave and his wife, Ruth, in Columbia, SC. On Saturday last we decided to escape the heat and humidity of Columbia and head on down to experience the heat and humidity in Savannah, GA! Savannah, of course, has a significantly more dramatic setting than Columbia, being on the coast and having an old town with a more dramatic history (the reason that it can still be risky to mention the name of Civil War Union general Sherman in that part of the country!). I’ll leave out the history, however, and just show how Spanish moss lends such charm and mystique to the city.

Southern live oaks (like those that stereotypically line the lanes leading to Southern coastal plantation homes) are the most common host for Spanish moss—along with bald cypress trees, which characterize the swamps of the Southeast. But Spanish moss is not really Spanish, nor is it moss. It is an air plant (epiphyte), which does not live off the tree, but simply on the tree where it drapes itself over branches and catches both moisture and nutrients from the air and from the surface of the host tree. Another name for it is “old man’s beard” like its apparent cousin on the West Coast

Strings of it can be over twenty feet long. But long strings usually are broken off by wind or rain or simply by their weight. So in less-traveled areas, piles of it gather on the ground. When my oldest son tried to collect some of it to bring home a few years ago, a resident did him a favor by simply saying, “There’s bugs in there.” What he was referring to was redbugs—or chiggers—which can cause nasty skin irritations. They love to make their beds in the ground masses, masses which in the past were collected and dried (and no doubt “debugged”) to be used for furniture stuffing and insulation. Today it is commonly used for mulch around living plants and a natural bed for unnatural plants (in creative artificial flower arranging). Warblers and bats like to use it as nesting material.

Its most common—and most dramatic—use, however, is simply being the Creator’s decorative touch in helping to make the Deep South landscape another of His wonders.

But what about “old man’s beard” on the opposite coast? It too is not exactly a moss, but a lichen. This means that it is different from the southeastern plant. As a lichen, it does attach itself to the tree with strong holdfasts (hence less likely to become detached). Lichens, however, are also air plants and get most of their nutrients and moisture from the air and from a rather complicated interrelationship with algae. The Creator has used this too as a most glorious decoration to lend character and beauty to the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

Both plants can become a burden on their host trees by blocking sunlight from the leaves so drastically that the trees die. But for the most part they “get along” and provide just more eye candy for already beautiful landscapes. They bring to mind the first thing that was said about the trees in the Garden of Eden: They were “pleasing to the eye.” I’ve often been intrigued by the fact that the Bible mentions their beauty before their utility. I wonder how much of God’s creation is destroyed because we so often put utility before beauty (thinking in particular lately of the destruction of California’s redwoods and sequoias). How long has it been since you’ve seen the beauty in the natural things you utilize or simply bypass every day? That’s another way to ask, “Have you stopped to smell the flowers lately?”

See you outdoors!

Dean