Black tree lichen (also called bear hair lichen) is an epiphyte--growing on tree branches and bark, depending on the trees for support and access to light but not parasitic in any way. The tangled brown to black lichen filaments hang from the branches, resembling clumps of hair that might have been snagged as a bear walked by. Sometimes the lichen strands are nearly a yard long!
Early Euroamerican explorers and ethnographers mention that this lichen was an emergency food for the Plateau peoples including the Nez Perce. For the Nez Perce, this was also a regular part of their diet.
One story tells how black tree lichen originated from the braided hair of the trickster Coyote. When Coyote's braid caught in a pine tree he was climbing and he was not able to loosen it, he cut the braid off to free himself. Then, so as not to waste his hair that was hanging from the tree branch, he changed it into food that would therafter be gathered by the people (Mourning Dove, 1933). Another traditional story, "The Disobedient Bo," refers to people gathering and eating this lichen.
Did You Know?
Salmon is a sacred fish for the Nez Perce. It is sustained them for thousands of years and has shaped their culture and religion. Today the Nez Perce Tribe is playing a leading role in the restoration of wild Salmon runs in the Columbia River Plateau.