Usnea spp. (Parmeliaceae)
Usnea is a lichen, not a plant. Looking closely at its structure, one sees the internal core to be a white thread which is a fungus while the bluish-green outer surface is algae. The algae of its outer skin enables it to utilize sunlight and carbon dioxide for food production. The internal white fungus provides a physical framework and ability to retain water.
It is epiphytic which means it uses trees as a foundation for growing but it is not a parasite. It neither feeds off the tree nor harms it. Epiphytes get moisture and nutrients from the air.
Because it is not part of the Plant Kingdom, it might not be included in all plant field guides. It is common enough in the herb community that it is usually included under the general category of an ‘herb’.
Old Man’s Beard
Usnea grows on bark of the trunk and branches of conifers and our local Gambel oak around Flagstaff. It is not uncommon above 5,000′ in northern Arizona.
Energy & Tastes:
Dry, cool, clears heat and removes excess dampness
Usnic acid, which is challenging to extract and requires hot alcohol.
Polysaccharides, which are water soluble.
These are the two constituents that are recognized as being therapeutic. As always, there are many other chemical compounds and they all contribute to the larger therapeutic picture.
Preferred Method of Preparation:
Extraction is a challenge when working with this herb. Usnic acid does not extract well in either water or alcohol so some people powder the herb and take it in capsules or use either the whole lichen or powder topically as needed.
Some herbalists have found a hot alcohol extraction to be more effective than the same process at room temperature. Using high proof alcohol around fire involves risks and must be done very carefully.
The best method I have found is the Double Extraction Process. This involves both a water decoction and hot alcohol extraction to get the most complete range of chemical compounds.
Details of the Double Extraction Process:
1. Pick 2 oz of Usnea and grind in a blender or mortar and pestle.
2. Add to 15 oz of water.
3. Keep warm and covered on low heat in a slow cooker over night.
4. In the morning, with the low heat still on, take the lid off and allow the water to evaporate until the amount is reduced to 5 oz.
5. Turn off the heat.
6. Let cool a bit until the decoction is very warm but not scalding hot.
7. Pour into a heat proof container such as a canning jar.
8. Add 1 oz of vegetable glycerine to the water.
9. Add 4 oz of Everclear to the usnea decoction. Screw the lid on right away.
10. Let sit for 2 weeks, then strain the menstruum (liquid) from the marc (usnea). The menstruum is now a tincture and ready to use.
Traditionally, the herb community considers it to be especially effective for gram positive bacteria such as strep and staph.
-This lichen may be powdered and applied topically in wound care to address infection.
-Internally, it helps balance mucous membranes that are too hot and wet.
-It is a primary herb for respiratory conditions that are hot and/or damp. For inclusion in a cough formula, especially look for green or yellow phlegm.
-Bladder infections are classified as “Damp Heat” in TCM. Usnea is an effective addition to many herbal formulas for this condition.
For hot and damp respiratory infections, Usnea complements the anti-microbial actions of Osha, White Sage, Yerba Mansa, Yerba Santa, Thyme and Elecampane.
For bladder infections, Usnea complements the anti-microbial actions of Manzanita, Yerba Santa, Echinacea, Arizona Cypress and Monarda.
There is a lesser known use of Usnea, used topically in the mouth for gum inflammation. It combines well with Myrrh, Yerba Manza and Spilanthes.
Christopher Hobbs has a .PDF download of his Usnea: The Herbal Antibiotic book available here: