Part of what makes walking through the temperate forest of North America is the Lichens growing and dancing from living and decomposing trees. Their almost florescent green colour, earthy scent and unique form make being among these ancient organisms enchanting and healing.
Usnea spp - Also known as Old Mans Beard and Witches Hair among other names are lichens. Lichens are a result of a complex symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi. The algae component is responsible for photosynthesis which creates energy. The fungi component provides structure, protection, reproductive ability and moisture retention (Vidyasagar, 2016). Lichens help with carbon cycling, provide shelter and nutrition for various species. Usnea is slow-growing and thrives in moisture-rich conditions in unpolluted areas.
Usnea has extensive traditional medicinal uses across time and cultures. Usnea appears in the ancient Chinese herbal, the Shennong Ben Cao Jing (Divine Farmer's Materia Medica, ~200bc), and it is classified as a phlegm-resolving herb.
Among northwestern Native Americans, it has been used as sanitary napkins and as a poultice. Usnea longissima is used by the Haida, an indigenous nation of the Pacific Northwest Coast, to strain impurities for use in medicine (Buhner, 2006).
In Europe, it has been used predominantly as topical medication and as an antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic remedy.
Lichens first evolved over 250 million years ago, which has allowed them to develop More than 850 secondary metabolites, and 80% to be specific to the lichens (Yousuf & Choudhary, 2014). These secondary metabolites are chemicals that support survival within an organism and are what results in their medical compounds. Usnea’s metabolites are antibacterial, antimycobacterial, antiviral, antitumor, antiprotozoal, antimutagenic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic and cytotoxic.
Usnea has a cooling nature with the ability to dispel excess heat from inflammation and infection. Usnic acid, is present within Usnea and is a potent antibacterial agent against Gram-positive bacteria (Lauterwein et al., 1995). Inhibiting RNA and DNA synthesis and blocks DNA replication and elongation in Gram-positive bacteria: B. subtilis and S. aureus. E. coli, as a Gram-negative bacterium, is resistant to usnic acid, even in its high doses (Sepahvand et al., 2020). Usnea’s antibacterial effects make it incredibly promising for treating bacterial infections, especially given the growing antibiotic resistance crisis.
One of the most potent herbal medicines for bacterial infections of the respiratory system and effective in acute situations for treating bronchitis, pneumonia, strep throat, sinusitis, tuberculosis and pleurisy. It works well as a tincture and as a medicinal mouth wash in these conditions.
In the digestive tract, Usnea can be useful for treating SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) when used in the bacterial control stage of treatment. I have had great results with using Usnea in various digestive bacterial infections particularly when administered in capsules along with other herbs. It is important not to over-consume antimicrobials or use Usnea as a preventive in most cases rather utilize this medicine in acute periods.
Topically Usnea has dermatological benefits due to its bacteriostatic and antioxidant activities. When applied to the skin it can reduce blood loss from a superficial injury, encourage wound healing and prevent secondary infections. Usnea makes a helpful first-aid remedy not only for its application as a first-aid but also as a firestarter when completely dried.
Avoid if known allergy to Usnic acid as a rash may develop.
Not for long-term use. Usnea is used medicinally acutely in small amounts for specific cases.
If harvesting or sourcing always ensure the Usnea was gathered consciously and not taken from trees. It is best to gather lichen after a windstorm where it may fall to the ground.
Avoid harvesting any lichens in polluted areas as it is prone to absorb toxins for its environment.
If another herb is suitable for your needs and is more accessible consider favouring it over Usnea.
As lichens grow very slowly there is a limited amount available. Take only what you need.
Dry Usnea fully before storing it as it is prone to mould.
Buhner, S. H. (2006). Sacred Plant Medicine: The wisdom in Native American herbalism. Bear & Co.
Lauterwein M,., Oethinger, M., & Belsner, K. (1995.). (PDF) in vitro activities of the lichen secondary ... Research Gate. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/14614290_In_Vitro_Activities_of_the_Lichen_Secondary_Metabolites_Vulpinic_Acid_1-Usnic_Acid_and_2-Usnic_Acid_against_Aerobic_and_Anaerobic_Microorganisms
Londoñe-Bailon, P., Sánchez-Robinet, C., & Alvarez-Guzman, G. (2019, August 25). In vitro antibacterial, antioxidant and cytotoxic activity of methanol-acetone extracts from Antarctic lichens (USNEA Antarctica and USNEA Aurantiaco-atra). Polar Science. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1873965219300957
MacKinnon, A., Pojar, J., & MacKinnon, A. (2016). Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Partners Publishing.
Sepahvand, A., Studzińska-Sroka, E., Ramak, P., & Karimian, V. (2020, December 1). USNEA SP.: Antimicrobial potential, bioactive compounds, ethnopharmacological uses and other pharmacological properties; a review article. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378874120335443
Tilford, G. L. (1999). Edible and medicinal plants of the West. Mountain Press Pub. Co.
Vidyasagar, A. (2016, June 8). What are lichens? LiveScience. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/55008-lichens.html
Yousuf, S., & Choudhary, M. I. (2014, June 18). Lichens: Chemistry and biological activities. Studies in Natural Products Chemistry. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780444634306000072
Very informative for something you see all the time in the Forrest, thanks for the info! Makes you question all the medical properties these plants may hold
David Dennis on