Usnea, also known as Beard lichen, Usnea barbata, Usnea longissima, Woman’s Long Hair, Tree moss, or Old man’s beard is a lichen, a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungus. S. H. Buhner, in his book “Sacred plant medicine” writes: “The Dakota called usnea Chan wiziye. This has been variously translated as “on the north side of the tree” or “Spirit of the north wind,” from Chan (on a tree) and wiziye (toward the snow and pine trees); the north wind; a legendary white giant of the north.” To me, the Dakota name for Usnea transmits some of the magic surrounding this lichen.
There are hundreds of species of Usnea and the Old man’s beard comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes; long beards (like goat beards), shorts beards, more greenish, more grey/yellowish. Usnea grows world-wide and is found on every continent, so it is indeed available to all of us. The variety which grows in my region of the Rocky Mountains tends to be light grey/green and shorter; it usually grows in small tufts on pine or fur and looks like this…
According to G. Tilford (1997), Usnea has been used by Chinese, Greek, and Egyptian healers since 1600 B.C.. Usnea is a potent antibiotic (healing lung and upper respiratory tract infections as well as urinary tract infections, kidney, and bladder infections), antiviral, antifungal (I have heard of Usnea being beneficial for women with yeast infections), antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and analgesic. Buhner (2006) explains that the outer portion, also called the cortex, contains the antibiotic compounds whereas the inner portion (the thallus) holds immune stimulating substances.
The following further illustrates the potency of this healing lichen: “Laboratory studies and clinical trials suggest that usnea may be more effective than penicillin in inhibiting the growth of gram-positive bacteria such as streptococcus, pneumococcus, and various strains of tuberculosis in the human body.” (Tilford, p.148)
Using Usnea during pregnancy is contraindicated.
I prefer harvesting Usnea during the winter, when plenty of snow is covering the forest ground and everything feels quieter and times moves more slowly. The dogs on my side, I love to bushwalk, stroll around, find new places deep in the woods; places intimately familiar to bears and mountain lions, snow rabbits and elk. Usnea looks magical, fairy-like to me. You can find this fuzzy magic growing on the branches of dead or very old trees and sometimes on tree stumps.
To find Usnea you have to look up, let your eyes meet the sky, caress old trees and broken off branches. Since the growth rate of lichens in nature is slow I really try to not directly harvest of the trees. You may want to go out after a storm, allowing you to gather Usnea from branches that have fallen down.
Usnea resembles Spanish Moss and you want to make sure you are identifying this lichen correctly. Usnea has a white core whereas Spanish Moss has a black core. Gently pull apart the outer sheath of its main stem and look for a white (elastic and rubbery when wet) thread.
I try to wild-harvest my herbs deep inside the forest, away from any air pollution. This is in particular important with Usnea since it is reported to be especially vulnerable to absorbing heavy metals and sulfur dioxide. If you can’t harvest Usnea on your own, Mountain Rose Herb offers Usnea of great wild-harvested quality.
Usnea, if stored in a dry place has a very long shelf life.
How to use Usnea… Tinctures, Wound Dressings and more
Usnea can be used both internally and externally in the form of cough lozenges, tinctures, tea (even though Usnea is only minimally water soluble), a gargle or mouthwash (mixing Usnea tincture with water), or wound dressing.
Usnea is a wonderful remedy for cellulitis or infected wounds. The energetic quality of Usnea is cooling and drying and quickly helps with redness and heat due to infection. I recently had a deep puncture wound on my leg that started to feel hot to the touch and looked infected. Because of Usnea’s anti-microbial properties it can be directly applied to an open wound to stave off infection. I took a handful of Usnea, soaked it in water, and applied it to the wound. Some people prefer to make Usnea into powder and use it as such. I used the whole lichen and made a fresh compress every couple of hours. The infection vanished and the wound started to look much better.
To make a tincture you simply place Usnea in a jar and cover with vodka (some people use everclear for their tinctures which I personally don’t like). Let the Usnea sit for a few months and strain into a dropper bottle. I like using Usnea in combination with Osha and/or Echinacea.
I encourage you to familiarize yourself with this wonderful medicine. As always, if you don’t know how to 100% identify Usnea, ask an herbalist of knowledgeable wild-crafter to guide you in the process.
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