Jul 102008

Name: Usnea, Old Man’s Beard
Botanical Name: Usnea barbata and other spp.
Energetics: Cool, dry
Actions/Functions: Clears heat, moves damp, resolves toxicity

When the rains arrive in the Gila, the whole landscape deepens in color and space. It’s as if the land, plants and all, takes a deep breath and fills itself out. Mushrooms pop up out of the forest floor, Morning Glory vines spiral upward and the annual Sages burst from seed to flower in the span of only a few weeks. The trees themselves seem to swell and darken with the moisture, and the lichens that live on them often quadruple in size before fruiting wide open. The Usnea is especially beautiful to watch, the delicate and usually dry threads expanding into soft, flexible tendrils that dangle from every Pine and many Junipers.

This is a very effective medicine and every year I have requests from all over the country for trades and to buy it. So many that I often try to teach people to find it locally rather than putting a strain on the canyon’s supply. It can be difficult to find commercially but is not uncommon in the wild. One of the best ways I know to positively ID the lichen (because there are look-alikes) is to gently pull a green thready bit apart until you can see the white inner core. If there’s no white inner core, it’s not Usnea. Often found on Coniferous trees (but sometimes Oaks and others as well), it is sometimes only an inch long and sometimes several feet long, dangling from high branches like some long haired wild forest creature.

As a side note, lichens are not plants. Rather, they are the manifestation of a symbiotic relationship between alga and fungus. Some people say that the Usnea lichen in particular likes to grow in old growth forests and while I don’t doubt this is true, I have also seen it in any number fairly healthy third growth woodlands as well. Here it tends to especially enjoy living on dying Pines, though it will it also grow on very much alive Oaks and Junipers. I’m not sure of the effect of the lichen on the trees, and have heard/read conflicting reports. Stephen Buhner has suggested that Usnea serves as the lungs of the forests they grow within, and in some way support the overall health of the ecosystem. I don’t know if this is literally true or not, though it is a very nice thought. Whatever their relationship with the trees, they do not seem to act as parasites or to harm them. Medicine Woman Tradition student and wonderful herbalist Angie Goodloe has a very nice post on lichens over here.

When gathering Usnea try to harvest after storms when lots of the lichen will have been knocked on the forest floor. Don’t harvest it from heavily polluted areas, as it is reported to be especially vulnerable to absorbing heavy metals and other unpleasant substances.

My experience and hearsay from other herbalists indicates that it has a very long shelf life if stored carefully, and I have lots of several year old Usnea that’s still going strong. Some people prefer a tincture made with hot alcohol while others swear by a simple folk style tincture made with good ‘ol vodka. I’m torn, and have mostly used room temp Everclear for my tinctures, and it certainly works, but I’m in the process of trying out the hot alcohol extract for comparison.

The Usnea are their own delicate medicinal miracles. They have a special affinity for rebalancing bacteria and eradicating infection throughout the mucus membranes, from mouth to lungs to gut to urinary tract and on. This medicine is a special gift for those with signs of infection in the lungs and bronchial area, often indicated by yellow or green phlegm, chest pain, difficulty breathing and sometimes accompanied by a fever.

The energetics of Usnea are cooling and drying, and it is broadly indicated for nearly any infection (especially those of the mucus membranes) with symptoms of heat, or heat with moisture. It seems to have the strongest, quickest effect on the lungs and bladder and is often used for infections associated with those organs. Even very serious infections such as pneumonia can respond very well to a strong Usnea tincture.

While I don’t particularly like speaking of herbs in terms of what they kill or the trendy anti- whatevers, I do find it useful to know what bacteria Usnea is most effective against. Gram-positive bacterias such as strep and staph seem most effected by this unique herb, and acts through disrupting/destroying the bacterias’ metabolism. It also seems to have an effect on the body’s ability to heal and protect itself, generally strengthening response to infection or excess heat while also dealing with the bacteria. I suggest that Usnea only be used in cases of infection associated with heat in order to avoid over-cooling the constitution of an already cold person.

Usnea can also be used externally for outbreaks of staph, cellulitis, or infected wounds. I generally use the powdered herb or the diluted tincture, the herb does not extract very well into water without first catalyzing the herb with alcohol. The moistened herb also makes an excellent bandage to be used directly on the wound or affected area. Rarely, someone has a dermatitis like reaction to the lichen, this is more apt to happen when the herb is very dry and moistening it first may help. If a skin reaction occurs, discontinue use.

This special wild being contains an extraordinary medicine, and also has a primal presence that brings us back to our earthiest, bare-footed selves. Back to the children playing beneath the trees at twilight winding their small fingers in the loose ropes of Usnea hanging from the canopy above.

Usnea Pics (c) 2008 Kiva Rose

  12 Responses to “Usnea: Healing From the Forest”

  1. Oh and the smell! Like warm hay, oakmoss, or a really deliciously sweet man 🙂 Truly sensual. I’ve used Usnea each time I had very bad tonsillitis (in my late teens) and it works extremely well. I also used other herbs, but this one along with Echinacea really helped with the pain and swelling.
    Thank you for the beautiful post Kiva!
    love – ananda

  2. I haven’t noticed the cooling effect from usnea tincture. Although I wouldn’t have been looking for that I am quite sensitive to getting cold. I wonder if the usnea that grows in my more temperate climate isn’t so cooling? Do herbs differentiate like that?

    I’m also curious if there is much difference between using moist usnea and dry? I stopped using usnea eventually because it was so drying to already dry nasal membranes. I will go back to it though and experiment with using lower doses I think.

    I think there is probably a specific use with healing teeth. Something to do with the doctrine of signatures (teeth having all those tubules in their structure; the inner and outer layers; colour), but also the immune aspects. Check this out:


  3. Hi Kate, you could be right about the Usnea energetics differing with climate…. Thomas Avery Garran of Hawaii does note its cold nature too, but then again, he is likely using the same spp as me… I have definitely noticed the temp in things like Monarda differing depending on the soil and climate.

    I’ve used both moist and dry Usnea, and I haven’t seen much difference but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one if just means I haven’t noticed it yet.

    I have used Usnea for many gum infections with good success, interesting observation.

    Whoa, intense picture…. have to ponder that one.

  4. Oh Ananda, I love the smell too, especially right after a rain!

  5. Could you please share the scientific data that support the following paragraph from your discussion of usnea?

    “The Usnea are their own delicate medicinal miracles. They have a special affinity for rebalancing bacteria and eradicating infection throughout the mucus membranes, from mouth to lungs to gut to urinary tract and on. This medicine is a special gift for those with signs of infection in the lungs and bronchial area, often indicated by yellow or green phlegm, chest pain, difficulty breathing and sometimes accompanied by a fever.”

  6. Hi Jorge, you must be a new reader, you’ll want to check out my post The Basis of My Claims AKA What I Know and How I Know It which can be found at http://bearmedicineherbals.com/?p=132

    Thanks for reading,

  7. Thanks kiva 🙂

  8. I’ve been using Usnea for about 7 years now to treat lots of things. I was 31 and developed an abscess in one of my tonsils (31 years with no tonsil issues?!). The doctor wanted to remove all tonsils and adenoids! I did some research and found that women over the age of 30 have a high percentage of infection and clotting issues after these surgeries. I’m an RN, but always look for a natural treatment for EVERYTHING. I’m not sure who told me about Usnea, but it worked! Every year for the next 3-4 years, the abscess stared to bother me again, and I’d repeat the Usnea and it would go away, only after I decided to take it for an entire week did it go away completely and it’s been I guess 3 years with no trouble. I recently tried it for a bladder infx with great success.
    Thanks to Usnea, I can’t remember the last time I took an antibiotic.

  9. Wow! Love learning something everyday! I ( no kidding) was playing WWF and when usnea took in the game I immediately looked it up in the online dictionary as I do with any unknown defination of a word. Lol! My mother made us look up everything in the dictionary as children. By sheer luck i found yr website. We live in Central Florida with many pine trees behind us. A fan of herbs and their medicinal benefits can you tell me if usnea would be readily/normally found in this region of the US?

    • Hi Kathie, yes, Usnea is a common lichen in the Southeast. I’d suggest getting a local field guide for your area to help make identification easier. Remember to look for the white stretchy core in the threads to help differentiate it from other lichen species.

  10. Last question for now….will be doing more reading/research on this plant. If unavailable here or too labor intensive to find it…is it sold by natural food/herbal/organic stores? Thanks in advance!!!!

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