Witch’s Hair (Alectoria sarmentosa)
Witch’s Hair hangs from conifer branches in moist forests, especially in the more open old-growth forests where much sunlight penetrates. It is more desiccation-resistant than many other lichens and mosses, so it grows well in the upper canopy where the humidity is lower and winds are higher. It does equally well on lower branches where enough sunlight is present. Alectoria looks much like Old Man’s Beard, Usnea, but lacks the central stemlike cords that characterize that genus.
Where Alectoria are common, the lichen loads on trees may reach over a ton per acre dry weight. Many other lichens are present in these wet forests that receive so much moisture from winds that blow from the ocean to the coast. The wet air rises and holds less moisture as it does, so rain and fog are prevalent, furnishing both water and windborne nutrients for these plants.
Although classified here as a fungus, Witch’s Hair is actually a lichen, a symbiotic association of a fungus and a green alga. The alga gives it its greenish color and also provides carbohydrates through photosynthesis, just as in a higher plant. The body or thallus of the plant is essentially a home for the alga and transmits nutrients and water to it. As the thallus is provided by the fungus, the combined organism is classified as a fungus.
Reproduction in lichens is by saucer-like fruiting bodies called apothecia. These bodies are relatively seldom seen in Witch’s Hair (Alectoria means ‘unmarried,’ perhaps referring to this lack), which propagates vegetatively when bits of it are blown off a branch and land on another one.
Some lichens provide reasonably good nutrition, and both deer and caribou browse on this species during winter, either on low branches or when storms blow it down onto the snow. In some areas, caribou depend on it to make it through the winter, and their access to it is facilitated by a snow crust hard enough for them to walk on. Flying squirrels are also known to make heavy use of this and other lichens in their diet at times.
Witch’s Hair has long been used by Northwest Natives as a source of fiber, for example for diapers and bandages. It was used on dance masks as false hair, and ponchos and footwear were woven from it, although considered inferior to hides for this purpose.