Several species of lichen, including Black Tree lichen, on a tree
The Nez Perce name for black tree lichens (the hairy growth on the tree) is hóopop. They were an important food source for many years and continue to be harvested by some nimíipuu today.


Black tree lichen (also called bear hair lichen) is an epiphyte. This means that it grows on tree branches and bark, and depends on the trees for support and access to light, but is 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!

All lichens are a symbiotic relationship between an algae and a fungus. There are thousands of species worldwide. 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. The lichens would have to be carefully prepared to make them edible.

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 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.



Last updated: December 30, 2022

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