The Last Frontier

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Medicinal Plants: Usnea

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 Tincture
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 a drying rack
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.


  1. I really enjoy your blog and I'm especially interested in your many uses of plants.

    I'm a spinner and I have read that many lichens are good to dye fiber with. Do you have any idea if this lichen is good for that? If not, no worries, as I know we have that here in the pacific nw. I guess I'll need to do some experimenting!

    Take care

  2. I would love to see your spinning! What do you do with it? I don't know if usnea is good for dying wool. I suspect not since when I tincture it, there is very little color. But, you could certainly try it. My husband just hauled in a bunch of logs for the cabin we're building, and when I start peeling them next week, I want to try dying wool with some of the bark. When I soak the inner bark, the water becomes very dark brown. He's used it for dying traps, so I think it will work.
    I would love for you to email me with any information you have time to provide on natural dies.
    Best wishes,

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I had never heard of Usnea before.
    I really enjoy your blog. It takes a special kind of person to be able to live the life you guys do. And it is really fun to read about how you guys "get things done".
    Have a Super Day! I'll be waiting for your next post!

  4. Usnea soap? wow who would have thinkit? Now I'd like to swap some of that with some seaweed soap that I have just finished curing made with nori and kelp and sea salt. :)

  5. Hi ScifiChick! I remember when you joined (or "followed" is the correct way to put it, I suppose). Your name caught my attention, but because of internet and computer woes, I wasn't able to check out your site. But I did today. GREAT! I will spend more time reading there. Lots of good info.

    Judy, it's a deal. I made some out of black usnea, and some out of the yellowish-greenis kind in the picture above. We have other lichens that I would like to try in soaps, as well. I'm trying to expand a bit on the types of soaps I make and sell. I don't use any fragrance or essential oils. I use only what I can either grow or gather out here in the bush (except for the oils and lye, of course). There are so many folks (like you! :) who make such wonderful, beautiful soaps, and I just can't compete with that. So, I try to make mine really "Alaskan", like the usnea soaps, birch sap soap, comfrey, wild geranium, Balm of Gilead, spruce and others like that.

    Any ideas for a name for my soaps? I was thinking something like Frontier Soap Co., or maybe Frontier Naturals. Or maybe Last Frontier Soap Co.????? Maybe I should have a contest. I'll ask for suggestions, and if I use the name, I'll send a gift to the person who names it. How does that sound?

    I'm looking for names for each of my soaps, too. Some I'll just call what they are, like Balm of Gilead. Others, I'm not sure about like the Birch Sap Soap. It's a very nice, simple soap, kind of a translucent ivory. Not really any fragrance, except a very, very faint, natural sweet scent. I was going to call it "Simply Sap", but my husband doesn't like that. I make another soap with the "silk" from fiddleheads. I was going to call "Silk Suds", but my husband just rolled his eyes at that one. Maybe I should just call it "Fiddlehead", or combine the two and call it Fiddlehead Silk"??? My husband and I are just never on the same page. LOL!

    That's enough soap rambling for now.

  6. Oh, I like Frontier Naturals.. or Alaskan Frontier Naturals - and just call them what they are - I like simple and to the point I suppose. Those all sound wonderful!

    When - how often - do you get mail?

  7. Our internet connection has been so slow lately that I haven't even been able to comment on my own blog, much less post. It's slightly faster this morning, zipping around at the speed of molasses in January!

    Mail delivery varies according to when someone visits and thinks about picking up our mail at the air taxi before flying out. Some friends were planning to come out in a couple of days, but it's been raining in town and the lakes are covered with puddles. For those in the south, that means that this time of year, the lakes still have ice, but it's getting too sloppy to land and take off. Our lake is still in good condition, but it rained yesterday. So, Judy, to answer your question, another family is planning to come back out one more time before our lake ice gets bad, and we should be able to exchange a couple of bars of soap. I'll get it ready to send in case we see anyone and they'll mail it out to you. If your soap doesn't get here before breakup, then it will be a nice surprise when the ice goes out and the first plane comes in.

  8. Thanks for sharing your amazing life in the Alaska bush. It certainly takes a brave and special person to live day to day in such a fashion. You have lots of great info and I haven't finish it yet. Have you always lived this way? If not what an adventure, most of us only dream of your lifestyle. I can surely dig it, my DH and I try to live as if homesteading in our home in AZ, as frugal, simple and back to basics as possible, but it is no comparison to your life. My hat is off to you and family! thanks for sharing, Marla

  9. I'm wondering if there are age limitations to making an usnea tincture. I gathered some in is now October. Do you think it will still be ok? I know with other tinctures you want the organic matter as fresh as possible...

  10. I work with chaga. Its constituents are not accessible until the chitin is broken down with hot water. I know usnea is a lichen not a fungus, but I suspect the same applies.

    Nice blog. Thanks, Tina
    Chaga Works -- Facebook

  11. Hello! I was wondering how much Usnea you would recommend to put in the soap? And would tallow be okay to use for this, or would you recommend another oil or base? Your blog has been my first glimmer of hope for making usnea soap. I have been using it in tinctures for some time and now I am dying to learn how to use this awesome lichen in soap. Hope to hear back from ya :) Thank you for your time.

  12. I live in Florida and have read and seen stories about Usnea..I am very interested in obtaining some...Is there any place that will ship it?


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