Herb Profile: Old Man’s Beard Lichen

Usnea spp. on an Atlantic Oak in Argyll
Usnea spp. on an ancient Atlantic Oak in Kilberry, Argyll & Bute

Botanical Name: Usnea spp. Many similarly used species

Common Names: Old Man’s Beard, Seaweed of the Mountain (Hawai’i), Fish Bone Beard Lichen, Tree Dandruff, Woman’s Long Hair

Family: Usneaceae

Parts Used: Whole Lichen

Lichenology & Identification:

Lichen are a symbiotic relationship between an algae and a fungus. The algae is able to photosynthesize and therefore produce food for the organism, where as the fungal structure supports the algae and stops it drying out. There are over 600 species in the Usnea genus, and many are used medicinally. It is a Fruticose or ‘shrubby’ lichen often found growing on Birch (Betula pendula), conifers and fruit trees in the Northern Hemisphere.

Assorted Lichens
Assorted Lichens
Usnea (left), Bryoria (right)
Usnea (left), Bryoria (right)

A key identifying feature of Usnea is that it feels stretchy – the outer fungal layer breaks away easily while the inner core stays in tact – this is the ‘stretchy knicker elastic’ test. Other species which can be confused with Usnea spp. such as the Bryoria genus don’t have this quality.

Growing & Harvesting: Lichen are very slow growing; they are mostly found on old growth trees within unpolluted habitats. They are very pollution sensitive, so aren’t often found growing significantly in cities. An abundance of lichen is often used as an indicator for sound environmental health of an area. Their population is shrinking worldwide due to climate change and unsustainable harvesting.

Autumn is the best time to harvest Usnea as the heavy rains can often break branches off of old trees and then the lichen can be gathered from the woodland floor. It can stay in good condition on the ground due to its anti-biotic & anti-fungal properties. It is much more ecologically responsible to harvest it from the fallen branches, rather than living trees due to its slow growth rate & overharvesting.

Harvest away from polluted sources as lichens readily absorb pollutants from the air and can accumulate toxic heavy metals. Aim to pick them at least 200 feet away from roads, factories & other pollution sources.

Edibility & Nutrition: Although Usnea is edible, it shouldn’t be eaten in large amounts raw as this can irritate the gut. There are no records of it being used as a food by humans, though it is often eaten by wild animals. Lichens are very low in protein & high in carbohydrates.

Constituents: Bitter Usnic acid up to 5%, Polysaccharides, Salazinic acid, Vitamin C & Mucilage

Qualities: Cooling & Drying . Energetically, it clears heat and damp from the body

Tastes: Bitter, Sweet, Neutral

Medicinal Actions: Antibacterial, Antibiotic, Anti-Fungal, Anti-Parasitic, Anti-Septic, Bitter, Vulnerary, Immune Tonic

Uses:
“Usnea is useful for any infection, inside or outside the body, by gram positive bacteria, fungus,

Usnea spp in Kilberry, Argyll
Usnea spp in Kilberry, Argyll

protozoa (Trichomonas), or yeast” (de la Floret)

  • Anti-Infective
    Usnic acid is a broad spectrum anti-biotic. Against some bacterial strains it is more effective than penicillin. Usnea works to inhibits the growth of gram positive bacteria such as Streptococcus & Staphylococcus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis and other fast growing species, but not against gram negative bacteria like Salmonella and E.coli which inhabit the digestive tract. This means it has a less disruptive effect on our body ecology and gut flora than broad spectrum antibiotic drugs. It works by disrupting the cellular metabolism of bacteria, preventing the formation of ATP from ADP. This disruptive mechanism does not affect human cells (Hobbs).
  • It is synergistic with the antibiotic clarithromycin which can increase its effectiveness as an antibiotic (Buhner, in de la Floret)
  • It is broadly indicated for rebalancing bacteria and eradicating infection throughout mucous membranes. It has the strongest & quickest effect on the lungs and bladder (Rose), and is useful in strep throat, tuberculosis, pneumonia, upper respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections, and diarrhoea (de la Floret)
  • As an antiviral Usnea inhibits Epstein-Barr virus activation and the Herpes simplex virus.
  • Usnea is also anti fungal, so is effective against Candida, athlete’s foot, jock itch, dandruff, ringworm, vaginal infections etc. (de la Floret)

Immune Stimulant

  • Old man’s Beard strengthens the body’s response to infection while also inhibiting bacteria & other pathogens (Rose)

Topical Wound Healer & Anti-Infective                                                                           

  • Usnea’s hair like structure allows the whole lichen to treat surface wounds topically. It can also be powdered and applied directly to a wound.
  • The tincture can be diluted and used to clean wounds, or for skin infections like impetigo, staphylococcus, cellulitis and infected wounds
  • It can also be used as a gargle for sore throats

History & Folklore:           

  • Usnea was believed to be the first ‘tinsel’ to decorate christmas trees in Northern Europe.
  • Interest in investigating lichens for their medicinal properties was stimulated by the discovery of penicillin in World War II which prompted a search for other antibiotic substances in plants.
  • In indigenous North American traditions. Usnea represents the direction North and is believed to maintain the ‘lungs’ of the Earth. It is seen to have a sacred primeval relationship with the trees, protecting them against infections.

Preparations & Dosages:

Usnic acid isn’t water soluble, so it is preferable to tincture Old Man’s Beard for its anti-infective properties (1:3, 70% alcohol). A standard dose would be 1-2ml three times a day internally.
It is also well prepared into a topical salve, a powder, a vaginal douche & a nasal & throat spray.

Cautions & Contraindications:

Usnic acid has the potential to be toxic, but is poorly and slowly absorbed so there is little cause for concern in therapeutic doses.
Avoid during pregnancy. The lichen can cause contact dermatitis in susceptible individuals, so discontinue use or lower the dose/increase the dilution if you develop a skin reaction.

References:

Earth Medicine Institute http://earthmedicineinstitute.com/more/library/medicinal-plants/usnea-spp/

Christopher Hobbs http://www.christopherhobbs.com/wp-website/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Usnea-booklet-text.pdf

Kiva Rose (2008) http://bearmedicineherbals.com/usnea-healing-from-the-forest.html

Rosalee de la Floret http://www.herbalremediesadvice.org/usnea-herb.html

Peter Holmes (2008) The Energetics of Western Herbs, Volume Two

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