Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter


from the August 2, 2009 Newsletter, issued from the Siskiyou Mountains west of Grants Pass, Oregon:

In the April 26 Newsletter I told you about the gray fruticose lichen Usnea, Old Man's Beard, pictures and story at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/usnea.htm.

At my trailer's elevation Usnea is the most conspicuous bushy lichen but as you go up in elevation into cooler, moister climes an intensely yellow lichen with the same bushy form appears. Atop higher ridges the yellow species is by far the most common. It's Wolf Moss, LETHARIA VULPINA, shown on a pine snag above.

Like many plants and fungi reproducing with wind-disseminated spores, Wolf Moss also occurs in the Old World. The story is that its name arises from the fact that Wolf Moss contains a toxic chemical, vulpinic acid. Ancient Europeans would mix Wolf Moss with ground glass and meat and leave it in the woods so wolves would eat it and die. Apparently the glass would puncture the gut making it easier for the vulpinic acid to do its dirty work. Northern California's Achomawi people poisoned their arrowheads with it but in dilute solutions other groups used it to wash external sores and wounds. The Okanagan-Colville people made a weak tea of it for treating internal problems and the Blackfoot used it for stomach disorders. Wolf Moss also could be boiled, either alone or with grape bark, to produce a bright yellow dye for decorating baskets.

This pretty, strange-looking organism must have been regarded as especially powerful and mysterious by those who once used it. I can just imagine shamans, herbalists and basket makers among the native people of these parts occasionally climbing into the upper elevations, maybe along the same trails I sometimes use, to gather it.