Usnea, an ancient anti-biotic

High winds over the past few days have brought down precious scatterings of Usnea lichen from the trees in my local woods.  The winter can feel like a rather barren time for foraging, but “windfalls” like this remind us that there is always medicine to be harvested!

One of my first vivid memories of Usnea is from childhood, riding ponies with my sister through mossy ancient woodland on the valley hillside where Usnea hung down in great boughs, tickling our faces as we rode through it.  These old woods on the damp hillside provided an excellent habitat for Usnea, but it is found growing on trees globally (providing us with plenty of historical medicinal uses from across the globe).  Usnea is a fruticose lichen (fruticose meaning coral-like) and is an extraordinary amalgamation of algae (which provides the coloured, often greenish outer layer) and fungus (providing the white, elastic central cord – which acts as a useful identification tool when trying to distinguish Usnea from other species).  Most often, medicinally, we use Usena barbata (Old Man’s Beard).

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Many are blind to lichen as we walk through the woods.  But there is something particularly magical about these quiet adornments to the trees. And Usnea is really rather beautiful, especially upon further inspection, where we can appreciate the delicate coral-like shapes.  With the doctrine of signatures in mind you can’t help but notice the reflection of the lungs, and I also see an echo of the tangled web of fibres that we see in wound healing in those delicate strands.  Two images that help us to remember traditional uses of Usnea, as a respiratory remedy and a wound healer.  It’s traditional uses across Asia, Europe and America were mostly topical (known particularly as a styptic), but it was also viewed as a emmenagogue (it isn’t a herb to be used in pregnancy), a lung tonic and an agent to clear phlegm.

As well as mucilage and polysaccharides, Usnea contains the well-known “lichen acid” – Usnic acid.  The bitterness of this well researched polyphenolic acid probably protects Usnea from being eaten!  Usefully for us Usnic acid is also active against gram positive bacteria (such as streptococcus, staphylococcus and pneumococcus).  It interferes with the bacteria’s oxidative phosphorylation, thereby interrupting it’s production of energy.

Today Herbalists consider Usnea to be a superb antibacterial, an anti-viral, an immunostimulant, an antiseptic, an anti-fungal and an anti-inflammatory.  It appears to have an affinity for the mucous membranes, particularly those in the respiratory and urinary systems.  We find it to be cooling and drying and therefore it lends itself to hot, damp conditions (as we often find in the respiratory and urinary systems).  Herbalists report using Usnea in cases of fungal infections (I like it in powders for Athlete’s foot!), Staphylococcal and Streptococcal infections (I use it predominantly, dried, as a gargle for sore Strep throats),  to clean wounds and manage bleeding, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, ulcers and burns, coughs and colds, flu, bronchitis and sinus infections, urinary tract infections and a variety of conditions linked to dampened immunity.  I know of herbalists who use Usnea interchangeably with Echinacea, particularly in those with extremely low immunity.

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After collecting a wind fall of Usnea I dry it on clean, thin cotton sheets (and it’s a herb that helpfully dries very quickly for you, unlike others!). I tend to only forage for naturally (and recently) fallen Usnea, as this lichen takes a long time to grow.  If collecting directly from the tree, do so mindfully and only where the lichen is abundant and flourishing, and always away from sources of pollution (roads etc).  Being of “dual origin” we have to perform a careful extraction to acquire all those useful therapeutic constituents.  After drying I grind it to a fine powder (spice grinders work well here), which helps to expose the fungal portion (you should see the little whitish to yellow flecks).  When making a tincture I use a high alcohol percentage to extract the usnic acid, and the water portion of my tincture comes in the form of a strong decoction of Usnea, which allows me to extract the polysaccharides (with all their amazing immune stimulating properties).  I macerate for up to six weeks before pressing.  My last couple of Usnea tinctures have been 1:5 and 90% and I have found small doses work perfectly well (just 1 or 2 ml, up to three times a day).  Herbalists often only use Usnea short term (it will very often help resolve the issues for which it is prized within a couple of weeks anyway).  This short term duration (I don’t exceed two weeks at a time) of use is an important measure of caution though when we consider that isolated Usnic acid, with it’s ability to disrupt oxidative phosphorylation has been linked to liver issues when ingested at high doses within other preparations.  It’s also important to note that isolated Usnic acid can be a skin irritant and some sensitive individuals may find that topical preparations of Usnea irritate.

 

  • Usnea can be used as a dye, for those who enjoy using nature’s pallete.  It also makes an excellent tinder!
  • For those who are keen to start exploring medicinal mushrooms, but are feeling a little nervous about taking that step, Usnea can be a nice stepping stone towards this.  Collecting it, drying and processing it certainly feels different to working with most other herbs!
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