One of my favorite things about my home state of Florida is its sheer natural diversity. We have wetlands, swamps, beaches, grasslands, hammocks, and scrubs. With all this diversity of habitat we also have a major diversity of plant, animal, and fungal life. Florida is home to over 4,700 species of plants and countless species of fungi. While I have barely dipped my toes in the ocean of the flora found in this state, I haven’t even breached the surface of the fungi pool. However, there are a few that stand out and I try to share those with people whenever I can.
Lichens are technically a type of fungi. Though they are really symbiotic organisms made up of fun-gus living in a symbiotic relationship with an alga or cyanobacterium (or both in some instances). Fungi are not able to photosynthesize, so they cannot make their own food from the sun. However, algae and cyanobacteria do have the ability to photosynthesize. Forming symbiotic relationships can help these fungi, alga, and cyanobacterium survive and thrive in areas where they would otherwise be unable to. Worldwide, there are about 17,000 species of lichen and it’s currently estimated that about 8% of the earth’s surface is covered by these fascinating symbiotes.
Usnea is a genus of lichen that can be found all over the Northern Hemisphere. It likes to grow on trees such as pine, spruce, juniper, fir, and even some hardwoods such as oak, hickory, walnut, apple, and pear. Usnea prefers moist areas, like Florida, where there is high humidity or regular fog and/or rain. Its most commonly used common name is Old Man’s Beard. This comes from Usnea’s growing habit, similar to that of Spanish Moss, where it forms long, bushy strands that cascade from the tree limbs, reminiscent of a long beard. However, in Florida, this is not very evident as our species tend to stay much smaller.
There are a few other species of lichen that can easily be confused with Usnea. Strap lichen (Rama-lina spp.) and oakmoss (Evernia spp.) are nontoxic lichens with flat, strap-like thalli (plant body) that could be confused with Usnea. The somewhat toxic wolf lichen (Letharia vulpina) can be confused with Usnea to the untrained eye. Wolf lichen, which grows in the Pacific Northwest, Northern Rockies, and Europe, is much brighter green in color and does not contain the inner filament that is the primary way I use to identify Usnea.
The best way to identify Usnea is by taking a moistened strand and gently pulling it apart. If it is Usnea, you will see an inner white- or cream-colored strand that is somewhat elastic. This inner white strand is the fungus core, while the green outer covering is the alga. If the usnea is too dry, the inner strand may be hard to see. Also, the branches of the Usnea thallus (the pant body) are always round in a cross-section.
If you plan on harvesting Usnea, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is that Usnea grows very slowly and can easily be over-harvested. The best way to ensure sustainable harvesting is by gathering this lichen from freshly fallen branches, either after a storm or in the regular shedding of branches in a forest. Another consideration is that Usnea is a natural air purifier and as such can absorb heavy metals. Make sure when you are harvesting to only harvest from areas low in air pollution.
Scientific Name- Usnea spp. most common species used include: U. barbata, U. californica, U. longissimi, and our local species U. florida. There are over 600 species of Usnea that grow across the world and many of these species are interchangeably used.
Common Names- Old Man’s Beard, Beard Lichen, Tree lichen, Tree Moss
Edibility- Edible, but not tasty. Can cause stomach upset if not properly prepared.
Summary of Actions- Antibiotic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antiparasitic, antiprotozoal, antiproliferative, antitumor, antiviral, antiseptic, analgesic, antipyretic, astringent, immuno-stimulating, immuno-regulator, demulcent, expectorant, febrifuge, styptic, tonic, vasodilator, vulnerary
Energetics & Flavors- Bitter, Cooling, and Drying
Constituents- Usnic acid, diffractaic acid, vitamin C, carotene, essential amino acids, fatty acids, mucilage, polysaccharides, anthraquinones
Parts Used- Whole lichen (dried thallus)
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)- Though it is rarely used, the first recorded use of Usnea in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) dates to 101 B.C., when it was used as an antimicrobial agent under the Chinese name of Song Lo (also spelled Songluo). Song Lo tea or decoction for internal and external use has also been recorded for detoxification of the liver, treatment of malaria, wounds, snake bite, cough, and much more. Song Lo is primarily used for clearing heat, moving dampness, and releasing toxicity from the body. It has an affinity for the kidneys, bladder, reproductive organs, mucous mem-branes, upper respiratory, tissues, and skin.
Antibacterial/Antifungal- Usnea is an amazing antibacterial herb and works best against gram-positive bacteria such as Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and other fast-growing species. As an antifungal and antiparasitic herb, it can also be used when candida overgrowth (yeast infections) or Trichomonas are a concern. Unlike pharmaceutical antibacterial medications, Usnea is not believed to negatively affect healthy gut bacteria.
Immune Stimulation- Usnea contains polysaccharides that are immuno-stimulatory and can be used for both local and systemic infections. Common infections it is used for include sinusitis, acute/chronic lung infections, and vaginal infections.
Wound Care- This lichen has traditionally been used as a compress for wounds. Not only does it help stop bleeding, but it also actively fights infections which will help prevent the wound from becoming infected. It also helps to speed healing and may even be beneficial for skin conditions such as acne.
Digestive Bitter- The bitter flavor of this lichen indicates that it can be used as a digestive bitter, helping to stimulate bile production and improve digestion as well as nutrient absorption and the breaking down of fats.
Drawing Out Toxins- Usnea is an excellent drawing herb. Not the kind you use to make art, but the kind used to draw out toxins. It can also be used for bites, stings, and other similarly infected wounds.
Urinary Tract- This herb has many traditional uses in acute complaints of the kidney, bladder, and urinary tract. It’s also a great antifungal and antibacterial which helps to fight off many of the common urinary tract infections.
Respiratory- Usnea is a great herb for your lungs. It’s a tonic that helps support general lung health, but it also actively fights many upper respiratory infections and is especially effective for hot, irritable, wet coughs.
Cautions, Contraindications, and Warnings- Some people are allergic, so always use caution when you are first encountering this herb. Usnea is generally considered safe, even for long-term use at an appropriate dosage. There were some reports of liver toxicity issues with a weight loss product, called “LipoKinetix,” in the early 2000s. This product contained usnic acid, however, the issues were most likely caused by the formulation which contained other questionable components in high amounts. Other toxicity issues from this product were likely due to overuse/abuse of the supplement (this was a “miracle” weight loss pill after all which is always questionable in the first place). Yet another case for whole herb use.
I only included a basic introduction to this amazing lichen. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram or updates on my adventures in Nature. Find me on YouTube and check out my videos! I also have a few things up on Teespring, check it out! Also, if you like what I do and what to see more, Become a Patron!
Foraging for Usnea- A Super Medicinal Lichen: Grow, Forage, Cook, Ferment: https://www.growforagecookferment.com/foraging-for-usnea/
Herb of the month- Usnea: Groton Wellness: https://www.grotonwellness.com/herb-of-the-month-october/
Medicinal Benefits of Usnea: Herbal Living: https://herbs.motherearthliving.com/medicinal-benefits-of-usnea/
Respiratory Herbs- Usnea, Lungs of the Forest: Nitty Gritty Life: https://nittygrittylife.com/usnea-lungs-forest/
Review of Usnic Acid and Usnea Barbata Toxicity: PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5739313/
Safety Issues Affecting Herbs- Usnea, an herb used in Western and Chinese medicine: ITM Online: http://www.itmonline.org/arts/usnea.htm
The Usnea Herb: Herbs with Rosalee: https://www.herbalremediesadvice.org/usnea-herb.html
Usnea: Gia Herbs: https://www.gaiaherbs.com/blogs/herbs/usnea
Usnea: WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-694/usnea#:~:text=The%20plant%20body%20of%20usnea,throat%20and%20for%20athlete's%20foot.
Usnea, an immune-enhancing lichen: Corinna Wood: https://www.corinnawood.com/blog/usnea-lichen-immune-enhancing-medicinal-herb
Usnea barbata: The Naturopathic Herbalist: https://thenaturopathicherbalist.com/herbs/t-u/usnea-barbata/
What are Lichens?: Live Science: https://www.livescience.com/55008-lichens.html
What to Know About Usnea, the Antibacterial Lichen That’s in Some Natural Deodorants: Well + Good: https://www.wellandgood.com/usnea-benefits/