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.
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