Usnea, an immune-enhancing lichen
Usnea is an herbal medicine–which is technically not actually a plant! Rather, it is classified as a lichen–a symbiosis of a fungus and an algae. Usnea can easily be identified by pulling a "string" of it apart. As the greenish-grey covering (the algae) separates, it will reveal a white thread (the fungus) in the middle–which stretches like a rubber band before breaking.
This unique and endearing organism is quite prolific in our Appalachian mountains and contains potent antibiotics that have been used by native people in many acute situations.
In response to increased demand for information about usnea, I am sharing with my readers my favorite article on the subject, which is by Jessica Godino. She and I co-founded Red Moon Herbs in 1994, as young herbalists who had apprenticed with Susun Weed together. Wise woman herbalist Jessica Godino writes:
On finding usnea
Anyone who has walked through the forests of the southeast has encountered Usnea, but you might not have noticed it. You probably didn’t know that the inconspicuous gray-green fuzzy stuff covering many of the trees is one of the gentlest yet strongest immune tonics in the herb world.
Usnea is a lichen; a combination of an algae and a fungus growing together. Also known as Old Man's beard, it grows in little hair-like tufts, with the green algae covering the white string like fungus.
The best way to identify Usnea is to pull a string apart and look for this white thread. However, since Usnea is nearly impossible to find in field guides and rarely in herb books, I recommend showing a sample to a knowledgeable person to confirm you've got the right plant.
This plant grows profusely in wet climates, like the Pacific Northwest, where I have seen tufts up to a foot long. The species that grows in our area tend to be smaller, which can make gathering it an arduous task. I recommend gathering after a big wind storm, because the wind will blow down the higher branches which usually have more Usnea on them. Or, find an old orchard to harvest in. Usnea loves to grow on aging apple trees and the branches are usually easy to reach.
Medicinal uses of usnea
Usnea is an immune system tonic that can be used in acute situations as well as for long term immune enhancement and general prevention. It has no side effects or contraindications, and is safe for children and animals. It can be used along with or instead of Echinacea. Usnea is more specific for strep and staph infections than Echinacea, and its antibiotic properties are most specific to the respiratory and urinary systems.
Use it to help heal respiratory and sinus infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, strep throat, colds, flues, as well as urinary tract, kidney, and bladder infections. Usnea is also beneficial for women with yeast infections, trichonomosas, bacterial vaginosis, and chlamydia. It can be helpful for people with chronic fatigue, HIV, herpes, and other chronic conditions related with depressed immunity.
Preparing usnea tincture
This tough little plant doesn't make much of a tea, so I recommend using it as an alcohol extract, also known as a tincture. Making your own alcohol extract is easy and will save you money.
Fill a jar of your choice with Usnea (the more freshly harvested the better, although this plant contains so little water that it's hard to distinguish fresh from dry). Pack the jar full, but not crammed. Then fill the jar again with 100 proof vodka. Make sure the alcohol totally covers the plant material. Label your jar with the date and contents and cover it with a lid. Let it sit in a cabinet for six weeks (feel free to open it up occasionally and taste it). It's not necessary to shake it. After six weeks strain off the liquid, compost the Usnea, and pour your extract back into the jar. It will have turned brownish-orange. You can pour some into amber dropper bottles for easier use.
Congratulations! You now have your own supply of Usnea extract!
Whether you make your own or buy some from the store, be sure to remember this humble but powerful plant when the cold and flu season comes around this year, or any other time your immune system needs an extra boost.
Recap on usnea as an immune-enhancing lichen
Usnea (Usnea spp) is both gentle and powerful, used as an herbal medicine to enhance immune support. This lichen grows in moist climates from the Pacific Northwest to the southern Appalachian mountains. Usnea can be used to compliment or as an alternative to echinacea for respiratory support and for extra immune support. Keep an eye out for this unique lichen on branches that come down after the next big wind storm.
For a clear, concise reference guide on the why’s and how’s of using and making herbal tinctures, infusions, vinegars and salves, check out my handy Wise Woman Medicine Making Chart.
Corinna Wood, seasoned teacher and mentor along the wise woman path–from herbs to self love
"I was initiated into the Wise Woman Tradition at the tender age of 22, by Susun Weed and a beloved patch of nettles. Today, I support women with inner growth and healing tools to ground you in your own innate wisdom, needs and desires. My teachings on heart and soul healing draw on earth wisdom of our foremothers––the shoulders on which we stand––to navigate the challenges we face as women in the world today."