Usnea (OOS-nay-uh or US-nay-uh) is a lichen, which is a symbiotic combination of an algae and a fungus. Usnea has numerous medicinal, as well as food uses, which I will get to in a moment. Some of its common names include Old Man’s Beard, Beard Lichen, Beard Moss, Moose Moss and Tree Moss (although it is not a moss). The common names pretty well describe the appearance of Usnea. It resembles Spanish Moss, however, the two are not related.
Usnea grows on every continent. In our area, Usnea primarily grows on the branches of spruce trees, but I’ve also seen it on birch and cottonwood. In the southeastern United States, it is commonly found on oak trees, as well as other types of trees. There are many varieties of Usnea, so search online or ask a local herbalist about which ones grow in your area. Some are a pale yellowish-greenish color; others are reddish brown. Still others are black. The stem of Usnea has a white core that can be seen when it is pulled apart. The “hairs” are a bit stretchy.
Some years, Usnea is abundant and the yellow-green variety that is found here often grows well over 12 inches long. Not this year. When our family went out to gather some a few days ago, we had to really hunt for it. I think I’m going to have to start selling my Usnea soap as a “limited edition” this year. I just made a couple of batches and will post pictures soon.
Medicinal Uses of Usnea
Usnea is an extremely useful antimicrobial, both internally and externally, effective primarily on the lungs and skin. It is often used to treat bacterial, viral and fungal infections. All of my resources really stress its antibacterial properties! It is reported to be an effective treatment for pneumonia, bronchitis, staph, strep, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections. I have successfully used it to prevent and treat colds and flu. It boosts the immune system and can be used like echinacea. Another great thing about Usnea is that it has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.
I have found Usnea to be most effective as a tincture when I feel like I’m coming down with a cold. It is not effective as a tea. I have since read that water does not extract the usnic acid, which is the primary medicinal component of Usnea; alcohol is necessary for that.
To prevent or treat infections, I usually take about 8 drops of the tincture, made with vodka or similar alcohol, two to three times daily. I also like to add usnea to my herbal mix when I make cough drops. It doesn’t actually help suppress a cough, but it has helped cure whatever has caused the cough and helps loosen it.
|Usnea being made into a tincture.|
Usnea tincture can be used externally as a liniment to treat infections on the skin. It can also be used straight from the tree as an emergency wound dressing to prevent infections and gangrene.
To make Usnea Tincture, place crushed usnea in a jar, cover with at least 60 proof alcohol such as Vodka (not rubbing alcohol). Place the lid on the jar and keep the jar in a cool, dark place. Shake the jar daily. After at least 2 weeks, (but preferably 8 weeks or more) strain and pour into a dropper bottle. In his book, “The Way of Herbs”, Michael Tierra states that the usual dose is 5 to 10 drops.
|Usnea on drying rack.|
Usnea as Food
Usnea is very high in Vitamin C, and is a carbohydrate. Before eating, Usnea should be soaked in several changes of water. The usnic acid can be very irritating to the digestive system. In the book, “Tanaina Plantlore”, Priscilla R. Kari states that the Inland Dena’ina Natives of Alaska sometimes eat Usnea as an emergency food or camp food after first boiling it in water.
Usnea, like all lichens, readily absorbs pollutants, such as heavy metals and radiation. Be careful where you collect lichens. Also, do not eat animals that have eaten contaminated lichens. The poisons have been known to pass to humans in this way.
Use caution and common sense when trying Usnea, or anything else, especially the first time. You never know how your body will react. Some time ago, usnic acid was found (or at least thought) to help with weight loss. A company produced a weight loss pill containing usnic acid, and from what I’ve read, it sounds like a few people over did it and had severe liver problems. I have read that once the ingestion of usnic acid is stopped, the problems will resolve. One thing to consider in this is that one constituent of Usnea was removed and used in a pharmaceutical preparation. However, plants, in their whole, natural form have many balancing constituents, and are therefore usually much safer, in my opinion, than a processed drug containing only an extract of a plant, possibly in concentrated amounts. Do your own research, talk with a knowledgeable healthcare provider, and then make your own decision about what to ingest.