The thallus or body of the lichen, is a much branched tuft resembling a very unkempt beard. The collected specimen at right has been partially flattened. The branches are densely covered with numerous very fine branchlets called fibrils. The very youngest fibrils are nothing but little bumps on the branches. A tough central cord runs down the center of each branch, and is cottony white (below).
This striking lichen grows on bark, mostly high in the trees. How common it is, we do not know, but it can occasionally be found on a fallen branch, as was the one at left, collected by students in a Mycology class at Radford University.
It is easy to distinguish the genus Usnea from other genera of bushy lichens. Grasp a branch at both ends and pull gently but firmly until it breaks. If there is a tough central cord sticking out of one of the pieces (see below) it is an Usnea, but if it breaks cleanly, it is something else.
There are, so far, three known species of Usnea in the Park and all look alike at first glance. Bushy Beard (U. strigosa) has many bumps called papillae instead of dense fibrils, and it usually produces reproductive structures that look like mutant daisies. Bloody Beard (U mutabilis) has tiny clumps of powder instead of dense fibrils, and its central cord is pink.