Seems like the coughy sniffles are going around these days, so I’m feeling inspired to share about one of my favorite medicinal treasures of the Pacific Northwest, Usnea!
You may already be familiar with Usnea and its medicinal benefits, but if you aren’t, allow me to share a little bit about this lichen that also goes by the nickname “Old Man’s Beard”.
Usnea (Usnea spp.), like all lichens, is in the fungal kingdom— it's actually a symbiotic mix of algae and fungi. Lichens can be found growing on trees, and Usnea in particular likes to hang down from tree branches like a green “beard” (hence the fun nickname!).
What I love so much about Usnea is that it truly is one of the most powerful locally-sourced immune medicines to turn to when you’re starting to feel that icky, sniffly, sneezy, coughy feeling coming on. When taken during these acute immune response times, Usnea’s antibacterial properties disrupt the metabolic function of bacteria. Therefore it prevents the bacteria from reproducing and making you sicker!
Usnea also acts like a medicinal tonic, as it helps to support the immune system so that it can function more efficiently. It’s not a medicine that you’d want to take consistently for a long period of time, as it’s antibacterial properties would eventually compromise the beneficial bacteria in your gut. But Usnea is perfect for taking whenever you’re starting to feel the sickies coming on and you want to nip it in the bud right away.
Another cool thing about Usnea which I really appreciate as an outdoor educator (who occasionally has to treat wounds in field) is that it’s great to use externally for wound care. Applying dried and powdered Usnea to a wound can help prevent infection. Just stuff Usnea powder into the wound and cover it with a bandage or gauze.
Usnea also has anti-fungal properties, so it can be added to warm baths to address skin fungus or athlete’s foot.
This time of year, it’s easy to find Usnea growing on branches that have fallen to the ground in windstorms. Because Usnea takes a long time to grow, I only harvest it from these dead fallen branches rather than from living trees. Make sure you’re harvesting the right lichen! One distinguishing feature of Usnea is the presence of a thin, thread-like, white central “cord” that is revealed when you pull apart the outer sheath of the thicker main strands of the lichen. These cords have an elastic consistency to them, so when you pull them apart they should be rather springy/snappy.
When harvesting Usnea, look for the vibrant, brighter colored specimens as opposed to those that have been hanging out on the ground for a long time. I like to harvest Usnea using a knife or clippers, that way I can easily separate the lichen from the branches that they’re growing on and leave any bark or other debris behind. Make sure you harvest away from roadsides or developed areas as Usnea can absorb toxins and heavy metals from the environment.
Processing Usnea for External Use
Usnea has very tough cell walls! Therefore you need to break its surface area— by grinding, mashing, or chopping etc— to make it’s medicine more bioavailable. For an herbal powder which can be used to clean and treat wounds, simply air dry the Usnea and then grind it into a fine consistency using a mortar and pestle or an electric grinder.
Making Usnea Tincture for Internal Use
In times of acute immune response, Usnea is most effective when taken in the form of a dual-extract tincture.
Usnea’s outer cortex contains usnic acid which gives it its antimicrobial properties. This medicinal component can be harnessed best through alcohol extraction (aka tincture), using at least 90% alcohol.
Usnea’s inner cord contains polysaccharides, which have immuno-modulating properties, meaning that they help bring optimal balance to the immune system. Usnea’s polysaccharides are best harnessed through a hot water extraction process (aka decoction).
Therefore, in order to benefit from the complete spectrum of medicinal properties of Usnea, we need to use the dual-extraction method of tincturing!
Sounds complicated, right??
Well, it’s really not. And trust me, it’s worth all the effort.
Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: Chop up your Usnea into smaller pieces with a knife or clippers.
Step 2: Loosely fill a clean quart jar with the Usnea.
Step 3: Pour organic 90% alcohol over the Usnea until it’s completely covered.
Step 4: Seal jar and store in cool dark place. Shake twice a day.
Step 5: After 2-4 weeks, strain Usnea from the tincture using a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth. Make sure you give it a good squeeze to get out all the tincture!
Step 6: Reserve the Usnea (you’ll be using it shortly to make the decoction). Measure the volume of tincture that you just strained, then set it aside in a sealed jar (you’ll be using it in a couple of days).
Step 7: Measure out filtered water that is double in volume to the amount of tincture you just measured.
Step 8: Place the Usnea into a crockpot and cover it with the filtered water.
Step 9: Turn crock pot to its lowest setting and let the Usnea and water cook for 48hrs.
Step 10: After 48 hrs, strain the Usnea from the water. At this point the water should have cooked down to half the amount, so it should be equal in amount to the alcohol tincture.
Step 11: Combine the alcohol extract (tincture) with the hot water extract (decoction). You now have a dual-extract Usnea tincture!
When feeling icky: Add 1 dropper full of tincture to 2 oz. of water or juice, 2 to 5 times per day. Best when taken between meals.
Well, I hope you're feeling inspired about getting out there and harvesting some Usnea for medicine! Let me know how it goes!