Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the August 21, 2005 Newsletter issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills somewhat east of Placerville, California, USA


The most conspicuous lichen in these parts is certainly a yellow-orange, fruticose species going by the English name of Wolf Moss (though lichens aren't related to mosses at all). It's LETHARIA VULPINA, pictured above.

If you need a refresher course on the three main kinds of lichen (crustose, foliose and fruticose), go to www.backyardnature.net/lichens.htm

Atop Slate Mountain where gnarly, knee-high manzanita gives way to barren slate debris, bright yellow Wolf Moss grows on the manzanitas' smooth, reddish stems. It also grows on naked rocks, on tree trunks, and the other day at an opening in the forest I came upon an old, abandoned horse-loading ramp whose wood was decaying and falling apart, and absolutely overgrown with garish Wolf Moss.

Like a number of plants and fungi reproducing with spores capable of traveling long distances on the wind, Wolf Moss also occurs in Europe. The story goes that it was there where our barbarian ancestors gave the lichen its name. It happens that Wolf Moss produces a toxic chemical, vulpinic acid, so our ancestors would mix the lichen 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. Wolf Moss's toxicity didn't go unnoticed by native Americans, either. Northern California's Achomawi people poisoned arrowheads with it.

Wolf Moss has a brighter side. Native Americans boiled it, either alone or with grape bark, to produce a bright yellow dye for decorating baskets. Also, often poisons taken in weak dosages serve medicinal purposes, and that's the case with Wolf Moss's vulpinic acid. In dilute solutions it was used to wash external sores and wounds. The Okanagan- Colville people made a weak tea of it to treat internal problems, and it was a Blackfoot remedy for stomach disorders.

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

Nowadays nearly everyone passes by Wolf Moss not knowing anything about its powers and gifts, not even knowing its name. I just wonder if ever the time will return when people will look upon it and cold shivers will run through their bodies as they think about its dangerousness, or, making dye from it, they get the dye on their hands and look at the rich golden hue and feel good about having conjured such a pretty color from simple wads of lichen gathered from Slate Mountain's gnarly manazanita.