Usnea Florida

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This patch of Usnea, though very similar to the same type found in Florida (aptly named Usnea Florida), is unique to the Appalachians.  Like it’s Florida relative, this lichen has medicinal properties, is high in Vitamin C, and in a pinch can be used as gauze due to its antiseptic properties.  Although I should not be amazed any longer by things that indigenous people knew about nature, including the Timucuans chewing on willow bark to alleviate headaches, I am no less delighted every time I learn about a new use of a natural phenomena.

The lichen hangs on a black pine branch, and given its size and volume it must’ve been growing there for quite a while.  Lichen is a slow-growing organism, but I must admit that I don’t know enough about it to judge how long this one has been growing.  The light green of the lichen is set off by the dark rhododendrons behind it, and I actually enjoy the composition from a purely artistic, aesthetic standpoint as well as a documentary one.

I grew up around Spanish moss hanging from every limb of our oak trees that grew outside my bedroom window.  The only attention I paid to the moss was the ever-present caution from my mother to avoid the ever-present chiggers whose bite itched worse than a thousand mosquitoes.  I did not appreciate the epiphytes then, and it wasn’t until very recently (during my self-education on lichen) that I discovered that Spanish “moss” is actually a bromeliad, and is more closely related to the pineapple then actual moss.  Most of the epiphytic air plants that grow in Florida (genus Tilandsia) are bromeliads, and the subtropical climate of Florida is perfect for them to flourish.

Perhaps because I grew up around so much moss and lichen, I never truly appreciated them before I began documenting them in photographs.  In the photographs, I was able to more greatly appreciate their simple beauty.  I think my gateway drug was resurrection ferns (Pleopeltis Polypodioides), which fascinated me through their natural (no pun intended) symbolism and their innate ability to come back from the “dead.”  Once I found one epiphyte that captured my attention, it was a short matter of time before the others did so as well.

I love being able to share my renewed, and almost childlike, fascination with nature with Kemper.  Though his attention span is short, I can see the buds of interest taking root.  Perhaps it won’t take him almost thirty years to fully appreciate the natural world around him, but if it does, then he is in for a treat.

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Deer Moss

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This lichen (Cladonia Evansii) is a familiar one.  Known mistakenly as “deer moss” this fungus is a lichen, not moss.  As the name suggests, this fruiticose lichen is important forage for whitetail deer in the eastern states.  Though not as plentiful amongst the trees as the usnea lichen that seems to attache to the branches and trunks of even the youngest saplings, among the rocky hills, the light ash-gray clumps of lichen are visible from long distances, interspersed between the darker slate-gray stones.   The lichen grows extremely slowly, only three to ten millimeters per year.

The patch that Kemper and I found on our walk down the driveway was decades old and thick with a radius of lichen stretching out ten feet from the center in all directions.  The thalli (branches) are interwoven, and the result is a springy, spongy mass.   This type of lichen (Cladonia) can be found all over the world, and its name varies as the animals that forage on it change.  In the northernmost reaches, it is known as reindeer moss, and further south it is known as caribou moss.  Kemper and I even found some in a Jacksonville swamp during a hike, and sure enough, cast in the mud was a hoof print of a small whitetail deer.

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Usnea

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This little piece of lichen (Usnea Florida) was the first photograph I took in North Carolina when we arrived in late December.  I had always known that the property was surrounded by natural beauty, but I took for granted the embarrassment of natural riches that the property had to offer.

I have spoken before about my reconnection with nature which coincided organically with taking up photography seriously in my late twenties and early thirties.  I had already begun a phase of my photography journey in which I was concentrating on lichen, and mushrooms, and other overlooked pieces of nature, and so when I arrived in North Carolina with that focus, I was almost overwhelmed by the proliferation of mushrooms and orchids pushing up from beneath the dense layer of fallen leaves.

As I mentioned previously, we go to North Carolina with my family – my parents, my sister, my niece and our clan of Nora, Kemper & Anna.  As much as I enjoyed spending time with them (and it was the best vacation we have ever taken in that regard), when everyone else was resting from a long hike, I would often try to sneak off with my camera to capture the little bits of nature that ordinarily go without notice.

Invariably, my father or mother would want to come with me, as they get to spend so little time with me during the rest of the year because of work (even though we live less than half-an-hour apart).  I was always happy to have them come along, and my dad even took it upon himself to be my “spotter” when I was so busy behind the lens to quite literally see the forest for the trees.  When I was accompanied, however, I always felt that my pace quickened, and I was not able to amble as slowly as I would have liked to take in as much as the wilderness had to offer.  That being said, I would not have changed those walks with my parents for anything.  Someday I will get the chance to walk alone through the woods, and I know then that I will long to have my “spotter” with me (or to have my mother asking whether I am taking my vitamins regularly, as mothers are wont to do).

Like this photograph, it is all about perspective.

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Growth

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Christmas break was supposed to be a reset.

Kemper had begun showing out at school, becoming increasingly obstinate to the teachers.  It had not fully made its way home, but we received emails every night or notes home in his folder that he had refused to do work or told the teacher he did not want to do something she asked.  He was five, and she was a brand new teacher, so we thought he might just be going through a phase and feeling out her boundaries.  Little did we realize that it was just the beginning of a truly rough patch.  But Christmas break was going to be a reset.  We would go to North Carolina, and all of the energy that he longed to let loose could be released in the mountain air.

We started the year with high hopes for Kemper.  We had begun to see a child psychologist before we left for North Carolina, and Kemper seemed to react well to him.  He showed none of the behavior that had been plaguing him at school, and we thought that he might have moved past the obstinance that he had begun to show.  The first day back was a disaster.  He yelled at the teacher, swatted at her, and flatly refused to do his math work.  He was sent to the principal, and Anna was called in to pick him up.  We disciplined him as we then thought appropriate, taking away his beloved stuffed animals, and this seemed to affect a change in his temperament.  The next day was as bad, if not worse.  The day after that he barely made it into the classroom before he had an outburst that sent him to the principal’s office.

We had him tested, and he proved to be off-the-charts gifted (which came as no surprise to us), and we thought he was just bored.  After many tears and gritted words, we walked away with a diagnosis of severe AD/HD.  The poor little guy could not physically sit still long enough to focus on his work, which he was being forced to do and then being scolded for not doing appropriately.  The psychiatrist suggested medication, which we very reticently put him on.  The change was immediate. Saturday was his sixth birthday, and we saw for the first time in a while the true Kemper coming back to us.

I took this photograph of a small patch of crustose lichen growing on the fallen trunk of a large red oak (Quercus Rubrum) in passing while on one of the many hikes that Kemper enjoyed (though he lamented his boredom along the way).  It did not mean much to me at the time, but in context it illustrates to me the rebirth of a new year.  Christmas break was not the reset we expected.  The fallen oak did not immediately sprout new leaves.  But in the darkness, there was a hint of life anew.  I may come upon this tree when we go back to North Carolina in June, and the lichen may cover the trunk by that point…or, it may just remain there in that little patch, growing slowly but steadily.  And that progress, as small as it might be, is enough.

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Lichen

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This little lichen (Usnea Florida) hung from the limb of a eastern red cedar (Juniperus Virginiana – not to be confused with the live oak (Quercus Virginiana)) dithering ever so slightly in the wind that had been left over from the storm the day prior.  I chronicled the Sunday walks I take through the swamp in Nocatee Preserve in an earlier post, and this day was no different, save for a different lens.   Instead of capturing the hidden beauty of the swamp in a macroscopic, wide angle tilt, I opted to only bring along my macro lens and lighting apparatus, which makes for a very serious looking photography setup to the uninitiated.  Few people passed me this day, on bike or foot, as the paths were still muddy from the day before.  The epiphytes, like this lichen, were bright and renewed from the downpour.  This particular varietal reminded me of the microscopic pictures of neural pathways and ganglia in the brain.  The common pattern, I am certain, is no coincidence of nature.

Interestingly, I later found out that usnea lichen contain potent antibiotics which can halt infection and are broad spectrum and effective against even tuberculosis. Usnic acid (C18H16O7), a potent antibiotic and antifungal agent, is found in most species, including this Usnea Florida.  This, combined with the hairlike structure of the lichen, means that Usnea lent itself well to treating surface wounds before sterile gauze and modern antibiotics.  It is also edible and very high in vitamin C.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I am not confident enough in my sight identification of mushrooms or lichen to test the medicinal properties of either, though there are no lichens nicknamed “Death Angel” or anything so nefarious, so I might be more willing to nibble on the ganglia of this lichen than an anonymous mushroom–if push came to absolute shove.

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