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?
The Nez Perce often travelled great distances to fish with family and friends. They fished as far away as present day Willamette Falls, near Oregon City as well as Celilo and Kettle Falls to the north.