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Old Man's Beard as a fire tinder (Usnea inermis)

Aussie123

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Over the last couple of years I’ve noticed Old Man’s Beard (OMB) growing on trees, esp in the High Country. I’ve seen TV presenters use it as a good tinder to light a fire.
P1270006 (Small).jpg P1270149 (Small).jpg

I’ve tried to use it as a tinder (and a kindling) on several occasions, but without much success, so on my last trip I made a real effort to master this plentiful tinder source.

I picked a dry handful of the OMB from a dry branch in a sunny spot and put it in my pocket for the day, to help it dry out.
P1270007 (Small).jpg

In the late afternoon, I wanted a fire, so I pulled it out. It looked and felt dry, certainly a bit more “crunchy” than when it had gone into my pocket.

Out came the fire steel: blast, blast, blast. After many attempts I couldn’t even get a smoulder. Nothing - certainly no fire!
P1270101 (Small).jpg

The next day, I collected more OMB and put it in my pocket for the day.
This time I took out my turbo lighter (one with a hot blue flame). Nothing ! Sure the stuff would sizzle when it had the flame on it, but as soon as I took it away, it stopped.
P1270152 (Small).jpg

The OMB was only just scorched !

In final desperation I decided that the stuff I was using must still be “green” with sap, so I took a small handful home with me to give it a thorough dry out, then I’d have a great tinder ... as seen on TV !

After being on a sunny window in a warm house for several days I gave it another test:

First I hit it with it with the turbo lighter – success. It caught, burnt and smouldered quite nicely.
Next with the fire steel – eventually, after a bit of effort, it did work and it caught fire; but not quite “as seen on TV”.


Next onto the research phase – probably a good place to start rather than finish, but I hadn't planned on experimenting with OMB until I was up in the mountains.

Here’s what I discovered with my research :

There are many plants who’s common name is Old Man’s Beard; most notably amongst them are various of the Clematis family – a rather lush, green creeper and not at all the wispy beard material I was looking for. (I think it gets its common name from its downy seeds, resembling the beard).

After much mucking around I discovered that the plant I had collected is a lichen called Usnea inermis.
Usnea inermis is quite a different plant to the one seen in Europe and N. America where TV presenters merely wave a fire steel at it to get a fire going. That plant is Tillandsia usneoides (aka Spanish Moss, Old Man’s Beard); a completely different species.

Usnea inermis is a lichen: distributed in coastal WA from Shark Bay sweeping around and onto the Nullarbor, and occurs sporadically all along the SA coast. It occurs everywhere in Victoria, and all along the East of the divide through NSW and many areas of coastal Qld, right up onto Cape York. The lichen also occurs in NZ. It does not occur outside Australian and NZ.

What does Usnea inermis mean ?
Usnea: any of a genus of widely distributed lichens (such as old-man's beard) that have a grayish or yellow pendulous freely branched thallus
Inermis: This Latin word means "unarmed", meaning that the plant doesn’t have any thorns etc.

And that Northern moss, as seen on TV is Tillandsia usneoides:
Usneoides : “The plant's specific name usneoides means "resembling Usnea", and it indeed closely resembles its namesake Usnea, also known as beard lichen, but in fact Spanish moss is not biologically related to either mosses or lichens. Instead, it is an angiosperm in the family Bromeliaceae (the bromeliads) that grows hanging from tree branches in full sun or partial shade”

So I reckon it was OK to be a bit confused over Usnea and Usneoides !


In summary :

As a tinder, Old Man’s Beard (Usnea inermis) is adequate, not great, but it will do the job with a fire steel, and certainly with a match or lighter it would be fine. BUT it must be completely dried before being useful, and a day in a pocket in Autumn is not adequate to completely dry the material.
 

Hairyman

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Ive tried the introduced Tillandsia OMB as a tinder with disappointing results too.
Probably in this type of 'air plant' lifestyle the plants have to retain moisture from the atmosphere and not dry out
easily.
My wifes hair clippings however took a spark very well, ....lesson, dont strike a fire steel near someones hair.
 

Wentworth

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Good test.
I didn't realise that plant also had the common name of old man's beard. I only knew our native, caustis flexuosa by that name. Now I know! I've seen Ray Mears use it and wondered if we had it here.
 

Templar

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Thanks for the write up...

One thing to note, when it has been used on the TV it always seems to be black and shrivled up, not the green living plant...
 

Aussie123

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Ive tried the introduced Tillandsia OMB as a tinder with disappointing results too.

That’s interesting ! Not how it looks on TV !

My wifes hair clippings however took a spark very well, ....lesson, dont strike a fire steel near someones hair.

LOL !
I’ve tried hair too, but never had much luck – if fizzled, but wouldn’t “burn”. Ah the smell ! Actually I have a ready source of a real Old Man beard every few weeks !

One thing to note, when it has been used on the TV it always seems to be black and shrivled up, not the green living plant...

That would make sense – I’ll have to have a closer look next time its on the screen.

I used the driest Usnea I could find. “Reasonable” pocket drying alone was not sufficient, but the fact it did work after some more time and home drying suggests that it should be possible to make use of it. Usnea simply doesn’t seem to visibly dry out and shrivel, although in the heat of summer, it may dry out more thoroughly.


Tillandsia and Usnea are both hydroscopic, so if left exposed to the atmosphere, they will re-wet.
Trying to dry the material by putting it close to the body (or in a sweaty place) will also re-wet it.
 

Dusty Miller

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I'll second that Tillandsia burns poorly. Maybe it could be used to carry an coal instead. Good insulation, poor flammability.
 

Blake

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Well done again Aussie123! love these posts from you mate.

I have tried this too and found the same thing. I didn't go as far as you. Just put it down to it either being a different species or too wet.

However this stuff isn't completely useless. It contains quite a bit of acid. I think I read somewhere once that you can boil it up and use the resulting liquid as an fungicidal to treat various things like athlete’s foot. Never tried it though.
 

Aussie123

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However this stuff isn't completely useless. It contains quite a bit of acid. I think I read somewhere once that you can boil it up and use the resulting liquid as an fungicidal to treat various things like athlete’s foot. Never tried it though.

Its a very useful plant, even if fire isn't its strong point !

This article sums up its uses quite well. Of course this is general information about Usnea, and is not medical advice ! Always consult a medical practitioner...

Extract from http://zipcodezoo.com/Key/Fungi/Usnea_Genus.asp

"Usnea has been used medicinally for at least 1000 years. Usnic acid (C18H16O7), a potent antibiotic and antifungal agent is found in most species. This, combined with the hairlike structure of the lichen, means that Usnea lent itself well to treating surface wounds when sterile gauze and modern antibiotics were unavailable. It is also edible and high in vitamin C.

This lichen, promoted to induce weight loss via increase in metabolic rate, has been the topic of an FDA warning in the USA, due to hepatotoxicity in a product called Lipokinetix. Lipokinetix also contained PPA, caffeine, yohimbine and diiodothyronine. There is no scientific information on the safety or efficacy of oral use of Usnea.

Usnea lichen is important to note because it has life-saving potential. Native Americans employed it as a compress to severe battle wounds to prevent infection and gangrene, and it was also taken internally to fight infections. Usnea contains potent antibiotics which can halt infection and are broad spectrum and effective against all gram-positive and tuberculosis bacterial species. Usnea has several unique characteristics which make its identification easy if stranded in the wilderness far from a hospital. Usnea lichens can be easily identified by pulling back the outer sheath on the main stem. Usnea lichens have an elastic pure white chord running through the center of the main stem. Lichen species which resemble Usnea do not have this white cord, and appear grey-green throughout. Usnea lichens do not change color throughout the growing season as do lichen species which closely resemble Usnea.

Usnea also has shown usefulness in the treatment of difficult to treat fish infections in aquariums and ponds; in part due to the Usnic Acid for digestive internal infections or external infections, and as well for gill infections/stress due to Mucilage which is also contained in Usnea.[1]"
 

Aussie123

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Just a further reference:

I was reading a (UK) book last night and the author spoke about using Old Mans Beard and specifically made mention of Alectoria Lichen and also Bryoria sp. He made mention of the fact that as well as using these as tinder, they were edible once they prepared correctly (palatability was not good)

Then tonight I watched Season 2, Ep 1 of Dual Survival – Cody and Dave were in Tierra Del Fuego (at the tip of South America) and they used “Usnea” to light their fire. Cody did make mention of the fact that the lichen would soak up moisture from the air and you needed to dry it before use.

I did notice that he didn’t spend long drying it, and it did have a somewhat pale hue about it in one scene – like it had been dried by more than just 5 minutes in his pocket !
(Tierra Del Fuego shares very similar remnant Antarctic beach forests to the ones in Southern Australia, both having been joined to Antarctica in the distant past)
 

Blake

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Just another theory as to why there might be some confusion in the bushcraft community about its apparently excellent firefighting abilities.

The clematis family of plants produce a seed with very fine white fluffy strips. This has given it the common name of old mans beard which takes a spark just as well as cotton wool. Perhaps both do take a spark but maybe our old mate clematis has been giving the lichen version a bit more of a talk up that it deserves? I can certainly see the term "old mans beard" being thrown around in conversation with one person thinking about the clematis and one about unsea. Just a theory.

clematis_microphylla2.jpg
 
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Aussie123

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Blake, you are 100% correct.

This is why scientific names are so much "better" than common names when dealing with nature; although the common names are usually much easier, they are less precise.
When we want to talk about the lovely "gum trees" we saw on our walk, it probably doesn't really matter; but when we want to use a plant for a specific purpose, it become more important that we get it right.
 

bubba5603

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All else fails then you can use what we refer to in my family as "White Man's tinder" - a shot of lighter fluid! :_risata: (My wife is a Native and I am Scottish in backgroud, thus the joke)
 

bubba5603

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On a serious note though, I think that what we refer to here as "Old Man's beard" has the same issues for tinder as have been previously stated, but luckily here in most places that you find OMB is also in the same areas where without much searching a White (Paper) or Golden birch can be found, and this makes exceptional tinder so I honestly can not remember using OMB solely. Will have to give it a try next time I am out East.

Question about birch in Australia - is it common or does it even grow there?
 

Templar

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The only place i have seen Birch was in the botanic gardens in Melbourne... and a friend found one in a park in Tassie a few years ago... we use paper bark for the same thing though...
 

Aussie123

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Question about birch in Australia - is it common or does it even grow there?

There are no birches in Australia, except as ornamentals in people's gardens. In fact none of the trees you have in Canada occur here unless they have been imported !

Having said that there are thousands of acres of pine plantations and willows have started to colonize many areas. Often around old homestead ruins of old gold diggings there will be some fruit trees, oaks or other imports. Locating some of these trees is a good way to locate the archaeology.

We do have paperbarks, but they are not spread everywhere. Their bark can be peeled and used for a variety of activities including fire lighting and cooking, but its not as leathery as birch, its more of a filo pastry - if that makes any sense at all !
Multiple paper thin layers eventually forming a thick coat on the tree.

If its scraped up it will take a ferro spark and is used to wrap food for cooking as well as a general purpose sheet material for construction, blankets, containers etc
 
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