Usnea has a great affinity for the respiratory system, as well as being a profound infection fighter for the whole body.
Usnea (Usnea sp.)
Energetic: cool, dry
Therapeutic Actions: anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, antiparastic, analgesic, astringent, styptic, tonic, vulnerary
Sometimes when you are researching the uses for a particular herb, its common or Latin names and associated terms point definitively to its actions or organ affinities. Usnea is referred to as the “lungs or the forest”. Perhaps it is no surprise then that this stretchy lichen has profound action on the respiratory system. Living in the temperate and green Pacific Northwest, it is not hard to spot throughout our mixed forests, sometimes as little tufts nestled in nooks of bark or even hanging in long, copious strands from overhead limbs. Bountiful and useful, this herb has an ever present place in my home apothecary.
Usnea Medicinal Benefits
Although usnea is also considered a tonic, this lichen is an infection fighter, plain and simple. Unlike most modern antibiotics which disrupt the structure of a cell, this lichen prevents the metabolism of gram positive bacteria such as Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It is particularly effective for hot, irritable, wet coughs.
Beyond the herb’s action on the respiratory system, it is often used to address acute complaints of the kidney, bladder and urinary tract. As an antifungal and antiparastitic, it can be used when candida overgrowth (yeast infections) or Trichomonas are a concern. Applied externally, it can help prevent infection and accelerate wound closure, and may even be effective against the bacteria that cause acne. A powerful drawer of toxins, the herb can also be used for bites, stings and other similarly infected wounds.
Usnea Safety Considerations
Usnea is generally considered safe, even for long term use at appropriate dosage. There were some reports of liver toxicity issues with a weight loss product in the early 2000’s which contained usnic acid (a constituent of usnea). However, the issues were most likely caused by the formulation which contained this and other questionable components in high amounts and overuse/abuse of the supplement (this was a “miracle” weight loss pill after all — always questionable in the first place). Yet another case for whole herb use.
I am a trained herbalist with a degree in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, I am not, however, a doctor. Posts in this blog are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Before using any herbs, check for appropriate dosage, drug interactions, and contraindications. Information contained herein is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prescribe. Please consult your primary care physician regarding your specific health concerns.
There are many species of usnea, all characterized by a stretchy internal “filament” or stem. One can take a strand of the yellowish-green to gray grey lichen and pull away at the outer coating (cortex) to reveal a whitish, elastic cord. Beware of look-alike lichens that do not have this whitish core, or have black cores – these are not usnea. Some desirable species tend to grow in small, hanging tufts only a few inches long, while some grow feet, if not yards, long. In the PNW, we have both U. wirthii (tufts) and U. longissima (long chains). As the name longissima implies, this particular species can grow feet to yards long and is particular satisfying to find and forage for. It is important to harvest the lichen from pristine areas, as its unique aerial habitat would make it prone to absorption of environmental pollutants. Although usnea prefers damper environments, it can be found throughout North America. It is often found in the limbs of an open forest, along the edges of wooded areas, and is a prime candidate for “windfall foraging” after a storm.
Common names include Old Man’s Beard, Blood Spattered Beard (um, yikes), beard moss (not a moss), and beard lichen.
Usnea Tincture & Other Uses
Usnea has a number of uses. It can be pulverized and applied to wounds as a herbal first aid poultice. It could also be simmered and drank like a tea, but I don’t find it particularly tasty. This is an herb best used fresh, either infused into oil or tinctured in high proof alcohol. I infused the lichen into the oils for this lotion.
Medicinally, I prefer usnea in tincture form. The outer cortex, containing most of the antibacterial and antifungal properties of the lichen, is alcohol soluble; the internal cord is associated with its more tonic, immune boosting aspects. A high proof spirit (like 95%) is preferred for the extraction here, however I have had very good luck using a lower proof alcohol and allowing the lichen to tincture for several months (rather than weeks).
The resulting tincture can be used to address acute complaints, specifically of the respiratory and urinary systems, or used long term as a tonic.
Interested in learning more about usnea and 49 other common wild medicinal plants? Check out my new book The Backyard Herbal Apothecary!
How to Make Usnea Tincture
- high proof alcohol (95% is ideal)
- Place clean usnea in a jar. Pour high proof alcohol into jar to cover the lichen by about one inch. Allow to infuse for approximately six weeks. If a lower proof alcohol is used, allow to infuse for four to six months. Strain away lichen and store in a dropper bottle.To administer, use one dropper twice a day for tonic, immune stimulating benefits, or one dropper up to six times a day for acute complaints.
MacKinnon, A., Pojar, J., & Alaback, P. B. (2004). Plants of the Pacific Northwest coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Vancouver: Lone Pine Pub.
Rogers, R. D. (2011). The fungal pharmacy: the complete guide to medicinal mushrooms and lichens of North America. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Wood, M., & Ryan, D. (2016). The earthwise herbal repertory: the definitive practitioner’s guide. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Susun Weed. www.susunweed.com
Subhuti Dharmananda, Institute for Traditional Medicine. http://www.itmonline.org/arts/usnea.htm
This is all over my yard. I read recently that this is a sign that the air is super clean. Good to know how to use it. Thank you.
I noticed you said it can be used for long term.
Recently I learned that oregano oil, which I have used (here n there) for years to avoid catching viruses or getting sinus infections etc. destroys good got bacteria as well as the bad stuff, just like Dr. prescribed antibiotics do. I was told you need to replenish your gut bacteria after you take it, just like you would prescribed antibiotics.
Anyway, I just wanted to confirm that Usnea does not do that.
Thanks for your time!
About how much usnea should I use? Just a single clump?
Hi Caitlin! This tincture “recipe” is more about proportion than it is exact amount. Usnea is very lightweight and difficult to measure accurately with home kitchen type scales. I suggest packing whatever amount that you have very firmly into a jar and then filling with vodka to about one inch over the plant material. I hope that helps!
Thanks for the info…are you referring to alcohol content or by volume? Like Absolute is 95 proof but alcohol content is less than that…or 151 grain alcohol is 95 proof…I just want to be clear.. Thank you!
Thank you for such concise information. I live in the PNW also.
You are most welcome, Marie!
Hi there! How do I ‘clean’ the usnea? To make the tincture, do I peel the outer layers off or just stuff the whole thing in a jar?
I usually give it a good rinse and pluck out any other vegetative matter them just “shove it in a jar”! Both the inner and outer parts of usnea are thought to be medicinally valuable.
great article. what is your opinion of usnea not being water soluble? have you used heat in your alcohol extraction to get a better extraction? if so what is your method?
Many of the polysaccharides that benefit of the immune system are water soluble. One could certainly use heat water to make a dual extract (one phase water, one phase high proof alcohol). I often just infused my alcohol for 6-12 months and find that cool, slow infusion still produces and an excellent and effective tincture.
I have read that using 95% alcohol that it should be mixed equal pats water for a tincture.
What are your thoughts
I am wondering if you and your herbal book are from and about herbs in the PNW. I live in northern California and would like more info about medicinal herbs and foraging plants and herbs in my area. Thanks for any info you can give me.
I have found this wonder “herb” to be effective for sinus infections. I have made a tea using Plantain and Usnea. I then add a small amount of the tea to a saline solution I irrigate my sinuses with. It has helped me avoid taking harmful antibiotics.
I too use usnea to flush my sinuses. I suffer from frequent sinus infections and discovered usnea tea to be the best treatment. Burns like crazy at first but after 3 days the infection was gone.
Great read! Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I have some in tincture form what dosage would you recommend for onset symptoms? Or daily us? Also, what age range can this be given and would it be possible for children to absorb with carrier oil through their feet? Thank you
When you armt feeling well, donyou take the tincture directly, or can you mix it in a tea, or even maybe a hot toddy?
Thanks for another great article. I think Modern “medicine ” should be considered the alternative.
Herbal medicines are the true healers which have worked for all six thousand years of creation. Then comes along “science” and modern medicine which claims to be the end all. The proof is in the pudding. Read any article from webmd for instance, it will list all the health benefits and the centuries of its effective use, then state that there is no good scientific research… ? Well that should tell us all something right there now shouldn’t it. Who wants to help and who wants us to stay sick to make them money.