Usnea- A Medicinal Lichen

Here in Southern Appalachia we’ve had a lot of storms lately. We had a couple hurricane remnants come through as well as the typical storms that come with the change of the seasons. That means a lot of branches are falling from the tree tops covered in Usnea, a long tendriled lichen that is sometimes also called Old Man’s Beard.

Lichens are very cool “composite organisms” comprised of a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an algae (or cyanobacteria). Animals and most fungi cannot make their own food, they eat/absorb other organisms for their nutrients, they are called heterotrophs. Plants are autotrophs, they can make their own food from water and sunlight via a chemical reaction. This is why some fungi and algae formed a relationship, one is a heterotroph and the other an autotroph. The algae provides the organism with nutrients and the fungi provides it with structure, allowing both parties to grow where they otherwise could not. Here is an article that discusses this in more detail, if you want to know more.

Usnea grows on tree bark but only uses the tree as a substrate. It is not a parasite of the tree, it does not need to be, since it gets its nutrients from the algae half of its being. Like most lichens, it only grows where there is very little pollution making it a bio-indicator of air quality. Usnea is a fruitcose lichen which grows in a “shrubby” branching pattern anchored on the bark or branches of trees. It is grayish green in color and has a kind of hairy look. Usnea is an entire genus of lichen with over 400 species. This genus can be distinguished from similar looking lichens by pulling on one of the strands. If you pull slowly you will see a small white filament inside the lichen branches. 

This white filament is the identifying characteristic you need to check for. If the filament is black or any color other than white, or there is no filament, you have a different organism. I have found what appears to be at least 3 different species of Usnea in the woods behind the house. From what I’ve read, all the species of the Usnea genus can be used interchangeably for the medicines I will discuss here but I have seen some references specifically to Usnea barbata though most of those references say something like “Usnea barbata and other species”.

Ok, before I go any further I am going to reiterate a disclaimer I have mentioned before: I am not a doctor, trained herbalist, or medical provider. I am not an expert in herbs, I am a beginner. I am learning from herbalists and research I have done on my own. Like with any medication, natural or otherwise, you should consult with a trained medical professional before taking any new medication. Also, since we’re discussing something that is foraged, not cultivated, I will remind you to be 100% SURE of your identification before using anything you forage.

Look closely. See the fine white filament core in the section I pulled to the right?

Usnea has been used for centuries across many cultures including Asian, European, and Native American traditional medicine. It is edible, although it’s not very tasty and I have read that you don’t want to eat it in large quantities due to potential liver toxicity, which I will discuss more in a bit. It has also been used in diapers and menstrual products due to its absorbent nature. It has been used in dyes, deodorants, cosmetics, and other products.

Here is an excerpt from a collection of research on Usnea that I think nicely summarizes the known medicinal uses of Usnea: “Significant research has been done on Usnea and its metabolites which confirm various biological activities including anti-microbial, anti-oxidant, anti-tumor, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular protective, and hepatoprotective properties. These are closely correlated with the ethno-medicinal uses. Recent pharmacological studies have revealed significant anti-cancer, anti-genotoxic, anti-proliferative, and anti-neoplastic activities and these potentials have further put Usnea under the spotlight.” (PDF) The genus Usnea: A potent phytomedicine with multifarious ethnobotany, phytochemistry and pharmacology. Available from:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292212820_The_genus_Usnea_A_potent_phytomedicine_with_multifarious_ethnobotany_phytochemistry_and_pharmacology [accessed Oct 29 2018].

The most common use of Usnea seems to be in fighting infections of mucosal membranes such as Urinary and Respiratory Tract Infections. Specifically, Usnic Acid, one of the active agents in Usnea has been shown to be effective against gram positive bacteria (like staphylococcus, tuberculosis, streptococcus, and more). Some studies have even shown it to be more effective than penicillin against certain types of bacteria. It does this by affecting the bacteria’s metabolism and production of ATP (energy), killing the cell when it cannot produce the energy it needs to live and reproduce. Usnic acid has also been found to selectively kill certain types of cancer.

Usnic Acid isn’t the only active chemical constituent found in Usnea either, there are a number of other beneficial organic acids and polysaccharides as well. I won’t get too scientific on you, but here’s a link to a great summary of research on Usnea; the same article I pulled the quote two paragraphs up from.

In my reading about Usnea and other medicinal plants and mushrooms, I have noticed that when modern science tries to verify ethnobotanical uses of plants and mushrooms, it tends to choose a chemical in said organism, extract it, and test to see if that chemical does what the whole organism is said to have done historically. This is often because the funding for research into medical plants comes from the pharmaceutical industry which is looking for chemicals it can synthesize to make money. They cannot make money from whole organisms that grow wild, especially ones that resist cultivation, like Usnea; therefore they aren’t motivated to invest in research toward whole plant application. In the case of  Usnea, Usnic Acid is living up to the medicinal claims history has made about Usnea but this isn’t always the case and it’s important to note that while many whole plants (or lichens) and whole plant extracts have been used for centuries for various medical conditions, once you start to separate the plant into individual chemicals you may have different effects.

So, how do we use Usnea that we foraged from our land (or purchased online)? Well, the most common uses are in tinctures, teas, powders, and poultices.

First things first, you need to clean the Usnea. When foraged it often has soil and other plant matter on it. To get the Usnea clean I soaked and swished it in cool water and changed out the water several times until the water had very little sediment (other than Usnea parts). Then, in most cases you will want to dry it for storage or use in a tincture. Remember, moisture can lead to spoilage. After drying I also cut off the little base ends that anchored the Usnea to it’s tree. I didn’t read anywhere that I needed to do this, but bits of bark from the tree were attached so I figured I should.

The active parts of Usnea are only minimally water soluble so if you want to make a tea, you need to “catalyze” it with some alcohol. To make a tea, finely chop or grind Usnea and put just enough alcohol on it to wet it. Allow this to sit for 30 minutes. Then add hot water and allow to steep for another 30 minutes.

To make a tincture, finely chop or grind Usnea and cover with alcohol (at least 50% ABV) in a glass jar. Allow to sit for 6 weeks. Strain and use the liquid. I have seen some people suggest that “hot alcohol” extractions are better for getting the most out of Usnea but I cannot seem to confirm how important this is, if at all. And since heat and alcohol can be dangerous to mix, be sure to research how to do this properly if that’s the route you want to take. I have not personally tried any “hot alcohol” extractions, but I’ll let you know if I do.

 

Whole Usnea can be used in bandaging wounds since it is absorbent and antimicrobial.

A poultice (moistened whole Usnea, possibly chopped) can be used on wounds and is said to be beneficial for staph infections, MRSA, cellulitis, and other infected wounds.

Usnea can also be dried and powdered and applied to wounds that way.

I have seen some people suggest that you could make a salve with Usnea by powdering it and adding it to a salve base (usually oil and beeswax), but this seems to be uncommon and I couldn’t say if it works any better or worse than the other preparation methods.

One final word of warning, these preparations, depending on who you ask, are all for TOPICAL use, not ingestion. Some people say you can take the tea and/or tincture internally, but others say you cannot due to possible liver toxicity concerns that have arisen recently. Because Usnea has been used to treat Urinary and Respiratory infections I figured it had to be able to be taken internally… so I did some digging. It seems that Usnic Acid has been used as a weight loss supplement recently, some people taking large doses of this Usnic Acid supplement have experienced liver toxicity, which is very serious. This has lead to concerns that Usnea may not be safe to take internally… but it’s important to remember that dosage is often the difference between medicine and poison. Herbal supplements in general have been under fire lately for causing/contributing to liver failure/toxicity issues. One article I found via the National Institute of Health said that 20% of the hepatotoxicity instances in the US currently are caused by Health and Dietary supplement-induced liver injury! A lot of these instances are from things like Vitamin C, Green Tea Extract, Iron, and other commonly used supplements.
That said, remember what we discussed about whole herbs versus extractions of individual chemicals a few paragraphs up…

Our bodies, and all of the organisms around us are very complex. As advanced as modern medicine is, there is a LOT we don’t know. The more I learn the more I know that even Doctors and scientists know relatively little about our bodies and how they work and interact with the world around us and the things we come into contact with and consume. Even FDA approved drugs and therapies often have mechanisms of action that aren’t fully understood.

In addition to the links I already shared within the post, here are links to some more of the articles I read while writing this post. I always encourage you to do your own research, don’t take my word for it.

American Botanical Council-Usnea
Health Benefits Times- Health Benefits of Usnea
Grow Forage Cook Ferment- Foraging for Usnea: A Super Medicinal Lichen
Sustainable Homesteading- Usnea, Medicinal Herb of the Forest
Herbs with Rosalee- The Usnea Herb
Alandi Ayureveda-Usnea barbata
Kivas Enchangments- Usnea: Healing From the Forest
The Naturopathic Herbalist- Usnea barbata
Herbal Living- Medicinal Benefits of Usnea
ITM Online- Safety Issues Affecting Herbs- Usnea: an herb used in Western and Chinese medicine
National Center for Biotechnology Information-Review of Usnic Acid and Usnea Barbata Toxicity
Consumer Reports- Liver Damage From Supplements Is on the Rise

Useful Plants On The Homestead

As promised, we are going to talk about some of the plants we learned about from Becky Beyer, of bloodandspicebush.com . I first met Becky at an edible plant walk she led at my work that I got to do as “professional development” (how neat is that!). After that one hour walk I knew we had to have her come to the homestead to help us learn to identify useful plants growing here. Becky is an ethnobotanist, that means she studies the historical uses of plants, specifically for Southern Appalachia; she is a wealth of knowledge. You can read a bit she wrote about ethnobotany here. While you’re there, take the time to poke around the site (I’m guessing it’s for her masters thesis). There’s a TON of great info in there! My book list got way longer after going through her resources. I am so grateful to Becky for putting the website together and sharing it with the world! Even more so for providing the badly needed service of educating people (us) about the plants around them (us).

My original intention was to write a post that went over all the plants that we discussed with her, how to identify them, what their uses are, recipes, etc. It’s just not possible to cover that much information in a single blog post, especially in a level of detail that will be helpful to you. For perspective, the packet of information she sent me about some of the plants we found is 25 pages long.

In this post I will list the plants that Becky helped us identify with some very basic info so that you can begin researching on your own if you wish. I included a little more info about a few that I’ve already begun researching. As I increase my knowledge about these and the other plants on the homestead I will do more in-depth posts about each individual plant. That way I can really take the time to go into detail about each of them and do the plants justice. Since we are just beginning to learn about plants and their uses, a lot of the information I present here was found through research online. Over time, we will begin to understand this knowledge first-hand and will continue to share our findings.

Unfortunately, before I go any further, it’s necessary for me to say: I am not an expert, doctor, or trained herbalist. This information is for educational purposes only. I am not responsible for what you do with the information or the plants themselves. While I do my best to verify everything I share from more than one source, the internet is a mysterious place filled with misinformation. It is good practice to do your own research before acting on any personally unverified information, from things you share on Facebook to strange plants you plan to ingest, especially when it could affect your health or life. Always be 100% sure you have the correct identification before eating anything you find in the wild. Also, be aware that while a plant may be edible or useful for most people, there’s always the chance that you have an allergy, or drug interaction, that will make the plant unsafe for YOU personally.

Without further delay, mostly in the order we encountered them on our walk, some of the *useful* plants we learned about from Becky, all of which grow wild on our homestead. *Notice I said useful, not necessarily edible.


Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis)- The pretty purple flowers of this vine are edible. We have quite a lot of it growing behind the house. It’s somewhat invasive and smothering some of the trees. But, the plant is prized by some bonsai enthusiasts so we may be able to dig up some stumps and bonsai them in order to curb its takeover.

 

 

Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)- Daylily has edible flowers, shoots, buds, and tubers. Make sure you have the right species though, some lilies are poisonous!


Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)- This very common plant, often seen as a “weed”, has edible flowers, buds, and leaves. It has also been used medicinally.

 

Carolina Sweet Shrub/ Sweet Bubbies (Calycanthus floridus)- This is one that we hadn’t ever heard of before. It’s leaves and twigs are used in tea and mead.

St. John’s Wort (Hypernicum sp.)- Having heard of St. John’s Wort and it’s medicinal uses, we were thrilled to learn that we have quite a lot of it growing on the homestead. You may have heard it’s useful to combat depression and anxiety. But it’s also said to be useful to reduce inflammation, help heal wounds, and ease the pain of sore joints and muscles. I have already started making a tincture and infused oil from this plant. I will share more on that process with you soon.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)- This is another one we have quite a lot of. People use the twigs, leaves, and buds in teas. Its bark can be dried and powdered and is said to be an acceptable cinnamon substitute. Its ripe berries can be used to make what is often called “Appalachian Allspice”. Here’s a good article about it and its uses.

Smilax (Smilax sp.)- Smilax is a semi-invasive vine, also called Cat Briar or Blaspheme Vine. It’s soft tips are a delicious edible that Becky described as “lemony-asparagus” and she was so right! I learned about this one from my first walk with Becky at my work. I was super excited to find it growing around the property when I got home. It’s a fun little trail snack, but can also be lightly steamed or sauteed. We tried it sautéed and it was good, despite being late in the season and them being a bit woody. They are best earlier in spring before the plant gets too big and tough.

There is a lot of variation in leaf shape throughout the genus but all members have both thorns and tendrils, which is one way to differentiate it from other vines. The thorns up on the edible part the are still rubbery, not sharp, and not a problem for humans to munch on raw (in small quantities). To harvest just snap off the top few inches (up to a foot) of soft growth. If you run your hand up the vine starting where the spines get rubbery harvest the part that snaps off easily. Here’s a great post about identifying smilax.

Violet (Viola sp.)- The Violet is a great plant to know. It’s quite common and is available most of the year. It’s leaves and flowers are edible.  Here’s a particularly great article about Violets. 

It’s important to note that this plant has a poisonous look-a-like, the Golden Ragwort, Packera aurea. The leaves can be confused and they grow in similar locations. So be careful when harvesting; check each individual leaf and verify it is a violet leaf before putting it in your basket. To tell the difference look at the serration on the leaves. The Violet, all the serration points down and the leaf ends in a point. As Becky said, “Violet gets to the point”. Golden Ragwort, on the other hand, has serrations that point in all directions and is more rounded.

Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis)- This flower we found growing in the bottom of the woods. It’s flowers, stems, leaves, and immature seeds are edible.

Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)- This plant is said to be medicinal but its cut flowers are more often used as decoration.

 


Pennsylvania smartweed (
Polygonum persicaria and other sp.)- Is one also said to be medicinal. The butterflies really like it.

Ground-Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)- Also called catsfoot, creeping-charlie, and a number of other names, this herb is the bane of lawn-growers everywhere. When you search the name most the articles you will find are about how to kill it. But, it’s edible and said to be medicinal.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)- Red clover flowers are edible. They can be added to salads or dipped in pancake batter and fried. The most common use seems to be for tea. They are also said to be medicinal though modern research has not confirmed any of the claims yet. 

Hosta (Hosta sp.)- Hosta’s are a relatively common decorative plant. But, it does more than provide curb appeal. It’s young shoots, flowers, and buds are edible

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus and sp.)- Mullein has been used medicinally for generations, primarily for respiratory conditions. It was often used to treat tuberculosis. It’s leaves can be smoked, chewed, or made into tea. It’s roots are said to be effective as a treatment for urinary tract infections. I’ve heard of the flowers being infused into oils. The flower stalk can also be dipped in beeswax to make candles. It’s fuzzy leaves have also been called cowboy toilet paper, just make sure to wipe with the grain of the fuzz, not against it. I also hear the leaves make a great bandaid for cuts and scrapes.

Maiden Hair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)- This beautiful fern is often grown as a coveted house plant for it’s delicate and interesting look. But, it has also been used medicinally for a number of conditions.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)- Goldenrod’s cheery yellow flowers are seen all over the area in the late summer (right now). All it’s above ground parts are edible. It has also been used medicinally, most commonly as a tea to fight allergies.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)- Jewelweed is a plant that I’ve heard can “cure poison ivy” and is “always found growing near poison ivy”, but this isn’t entirely true. This is a good example of why you don’t just swallow any random “medicinal plant” recommendations on the internet. While Jewelweed has been shown to be effective in neutralizing the oil from poison ivy that gives you a rash, it is slightly less effective than soap… It is also only effective when fresh, so all the salves and soaps you see claiming the poison-ivy-curing-powers of Jewelweed are likely untrue. From what I’ve been told, once you have actually broken out in a poison ivy rash Jewelweed probably cannot help you. (Although, other herbs like Plantain can.) That said, if you’re out in the woods and come in contact with poison ivy, but don’t have access to soap, crushing the leaves and stems and rubbing the juice on the affected area is more effective at neutralizing the oils than doing nothing!

Plantago major, Broad-Leaf Plantain

Plantain (Plantago major and lanceolata)- This is an herb that nearly everyone in North America who doesn’t spray their yard with weed killer has in their yard. In fact, it grows in most of the world. You’ve probably stepped on it thousands of times. The even more exciting part is that many of the claims about its usefulness seem to be backed up by actual scientific studies. One such study found it to be more effective than cortisone on various skin conditions like rashes and bug bites, not to mention the fact that it’s been used with much success for thousands of years. This makes it one of the most important herbs to know and a great one to start with if you’re just starting to explore your interest in medicinal herbs, or wild edibles. It is also edible and a great substitute for spinach.

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)- Black Locust flowers are edible. The wood is a good hard wood that is often used for fence posts due to its rot resistance. Be careful though, it’s covered in sharp spikes that can do some real damage and are known to lead to Staph infections.

 

 


Black Walnut (
Juglans nigra)- Black walnut produces edible nuts. Its hulls have been used as a stain/dye. The hulls are also used as a vermifuge (de-wormer). Its wood is prized for furniture and other wood crafts. As a matter of fact, we had a big one fall in a storm and my dad took home some huge logs he will be making some beautiful wood-crafts with. The catch is that it produces a growth inhibitor called juglone which it uses to cut down on competition by hindering the growth of most nearby plants. It has even been used to create a “natural” herbicide. So, the one growing next to the garden might need to go…

Horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)- Unfortunately, the one huge chestnut tree we have is not an edible one. But it’s wood is a good hardwood used for smoking food, fire wood, and wood crafts.

 

The underside of Hemlock needles.

Hemlock Pine (Tsuga sp.)- A lot of people immediately think of poison hemlock when they hear the name Hemlock Pine, but poison hemlock is a totally different herbaceous plant, not a tree. The hemlock pine is edible! The soft tips of the branches can be eaten. Its needles are also a good tea. They are rich in Vitamin C and said to be helpful for kidney ailments, colds, and a number of other conditions. The bark is said to be medicinal as well.

Pine, White and Virginia(Pinus strobus and virginiana)- We have some White Pine and Virginia Pine too. Like the Hemlock Pine (but note not the same Genus) it is high in vitamin C and has been used medicinally. It’s needles are often made into a tea. It’s pollen, bark, and sap are all medicinally useful as well. I have a longer, more detailed (half-written) post I am working on about pines I will share soon.

Sourwood bark

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)- You may have heard of sourwood honey before. Well, it’s made from the flowers of the sourwood tree. The leaves and bark of the tree have been used medicinally. Becky told us the leaves are good chopped in salads or to wrap around fish for steaming. She also said she likes to carve spoons from the wood.

 

 

 

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)- Sassafrass is the tree that the original “root beer” was made from. It exhibits a relatively rare phenomenon called heterophylly. That means the plant has multiple leaf shapes on the same plant. You can use this as an identification tool. This plant has also been used to make medicines, but some modern research shows it contains a chemical called safrole that can be dangerous.

Wild Cherry: (Prunus serotina)- Wild cherry produces edible cherries but is also medicinal. It’s used to make a number of remedies including cough syrup.

Ironwood/ American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)- While I’ve read that this tree has edible seeds, Becky told us this one is great wood for tool handles and things like that. 

 

This list contains just over 25 plants; we encountered all of these useful plants (and more) in one, two hour, walk around our property. I am currently working on a massive, super exciting (if you’re a spreadsheet nerd, like me) spreadsheet of all the plant (and mushroom) species we find on the property. So far, that list has 60 useful (mostly edible and/or medicinal) plants on it, and we haven’t even been here a year yet! Once you begin to open your eyes, mind, and heart to all of the life around you it’s amazing what you’ll find. To be able to just walk out into the yard and harvest food and medicine is an incredible feeling. I hope I was able to pique your interest enough that you’ll continue exploring on your own. I look forward to continuing to share what we’re learning with you!