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What Is Old Man's Beard?

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  • Written By: Christina Edwards
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  • Last Modified Date: 22 August 2016
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Old man's beard can refer to several types of plants. Leaves on these plants usually hang down and often resemble an old man's beard. Several species of lichen have this nickname. Some trees, shrubs, and climbing plants also have this nickname.

In the genus Usnea, there are a variety of plant species that have the nickname old man's beard. Some of these species are also colloquially referred to as beard lichen. A lichen is a type of plant that is basically a combination of fungus and algae. It can often be found growing on rocks and trees.

These plants resemble an old man's beard because they have hanging or draping foliage that is either green or gray. These types of lichen can be found growing in Europe, Asia, and North and South America. Uses of old man's beard are primarily medical. Many species have antiviral and antibacterial properties, for example. They are often used as herbal remedies for humans as well as wildlife.

Spanish moss, or Tillanda useoides, is another plant that has the nickname of old man's beard. This flowering plant looks very similar to some of the lichen mentioned above, but it is typically found draped in trees in the southeastern United States. In the past, it has been used for insulation, mulch, and mattress stuffing. It was even used to stuff some of the first automobile seats. Today, it can be found in craft stores, and many people use it for its decorative qualities.

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Clematis aristata is a climbing shrub that is also sometimes referred to as old man's beard. It is native to Australian forests. The star-shaped flowers on this plant are usually white or off white, and they can grow to be as large as 3 inches (7.6 centimeters). Many gardeners enjoy growing old man's beard of this sort because it does well in shady areas. If it is not maintained properly, however, it can smother other plants.

New Zealand has a plant nicknamed old man's beard as well, which is known scientifically as Clematis vitalba. The fruits of this plant have flowing white tufts that can resemble a white beard when there are several together. Since it can propagate and grow rapidly, Clematis vitalba is now considered to be an invasive species.

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clintflint
Post 3

@bythewell - The white flowers on the plant that is called old mans beard in New Zealand can make it look somewhat beard-like, but I think it's more because of the way it grows thickly and hangs. I guess I associate an old man's beard with a thicker beard, rather than necessarily just a white or grey one.

If you really want to see an amazing example of a kind of old mans beard, then look up the mushroom that is named that. It looks like of like tiny limestone stalactites or something and definitely earned its name.

bythewell
Post 2

@browncoat - I've always wondered why they called that particular plant old mans beard when hanging moss and lichen look so much more suitable for the name. If you look at Spanish moss, for example, it's hard to see why they call it any other name, since it looks exactly like the trees are growing grey and white beards.

browncoat
Post 1

Old man's beard is a serious problem in New Zealand because it spreads so quickly and completely smothers all other plants in its path. I remember thinking it looked rather pretty when I was there because it creates a kind of thick, green blanket, but it's not a native plant and it basically kills everything else near it because they can't get sunlight.

It's the same old problem with island ecosystems being attacked by invasive species. Island plants and animals are often in a very fragile balance, because they are not as competitive as mainland species. So when a mainland species makes the leap onto their territory, it can overwhelm them, because it grows faster.

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