[Herbal Rootslets]: No. 40 – Just What is Usnea, Anyway? (part of the Plants-to-Teach-Your-Kids-to-Identify Series)
“I love being asked to identify plants, and I don’t know which gives me more pleasure: to know what they are or not to know what they are.”
-Elizabeth Lawrence, Through the Garden Gates, 1990
This month’s herb is Usnea here at Herbal Roots zine. I’ve gotten a lot of curious people wondering, just what IS Usnea? To answer that question, I am sharing the “All About” section of this month’s issue of Herbal Roots zine.
Known as old man’s beard, Usnea is found growing throughout the northern hemisphere. Though he is slow growing, he is long lived and extremely prolific. He is often found growing high up in various trees such as pine, fir, larch, fruit trees, oaks and other trees and can be easily harvested from the ground after a storm.
A member of the Parmeliaceae family, there are around 86 species in the genus Usnea. In North America, many commonly found are Usnea californica, U. florida, U. ceratina, U. hirta, U. barbara, U. longtime, U. dasypoga, and U. arizonica. All species of Usnea can be used interchangeably though some variations in constituents exist. Species of Usnea are used in Chinese medicine, contemporary homeopathic medicine, and traditional medicine in the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, and every continent except Australia.
Usnea is a lichen. Lichens are fascinating in the fact that they are a combination of a symbiotic relationship between a fungi and an algae. The easiest way to identify Usnea is by taking a moistened strand and gently pulling it apart. If it is usnea you’ll see an inner white strand that is very elastic. This inner white strand is the fungus while the green outer covering is the algae. Chewing on Usnea is not a pleasant task but if you were to do that, you would notice a bitter taste. You would also find Usnea to be drying in your mouth and cooling. These energetics tell us that Usnea is good for clearing up damp, hot conditions.
Not much research has been done on the nutritional value of Usnea. U. barbara has been found to have vitamin C. The most studied constituent is usnic acid though Usnea also contains many other constituents such as hirtusneanoside and vulpinic acid.
Medicinally, Usnea is considered to be analgesic, antibacterial, antibiotic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antineoplastic, antioxidant, antiparasitic, antiprotozoal, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antitumor, antiviral, astringent, bronchodilator, drug synergist, expectorant, immunostimulant, vasodilator and vulnerary. The inner core of Usnea contains immune-stimulating polysaccharides while the outer cortex contains antibiotic substances. Usnea has an affinity for the gastrointestinal system and the skin.
There have been many studies on Usnea, finding him to be extremely effective against gram-positive bacteria [see the bar below], often more so than penicillin, but not so much against gram-negative bacteria. A few individual studies have disputed this, however, finding him to be effective against Salmonella typhimurium, Escherichia coli and Bordetella pertussis. Usnea has also been found useful in treating urinary tract infections. As a drug synergist, Usnea has found to increase the effectiveness of the antibiotic clarithromycin against Helicobacter pylori, a type of bacteria that causes ulcers. As an antibiotic, Usnea is a nonsystemic herbal antibiotic.
Being nonsystemic means they do not easily absorb into the bloodstream through the gastrointestinal tract, therefore they are best used as a localized herbal antibiotic.
Usnea is great for treating upper respiratory infections and lung infections with his antispasmodic, a bronchial dilator, expectorant, antibacterial and antiviral actions. For those who have hot conditions, with ‘stuck’ phlegm and unproductive coughs, Usnea can help to break the phlegm and help work it out of the lungs.
Usnea’s antiviral actions have been proven to be effective against Epstein-Barr, herpes simplex, Junin virus, polyomavirus, and Tacaribe virus.
As an antifungal, Usnea is effective against Candida spp. and other fungal strains such as Malassezia yeasts, Microsporum gypseum, Trichophyton mentagrophytes (ringworm), and T. rubrum (athlete’s foot, fungal infection of nail, jock itch, and ringworm).
Parasitical disease organisms such as Trypanosoma cruzi, Echinococcus granulosus and its cysts, and Toxoplasma gondii have also been treated effectively with Usnea and his antiparasitical/antiprotozoal actions.
Historically, Usnea was used as a wound dressing. It was packed directly into a wound or applied on top. When a wound was packed with the Usnea, the Usnea absorbed the blood, helped to astringe (pull together) the tissue, eased pain and killed germs. Today, dried and powdered Usnea (sifted to remove the fine white cords), makes a great wound powder to help fight off and/or prevent infection and ease pain while helping the wound to heal. In Canada, veterinarians use Usnea to treat abscesses. Other veterinary practices have used usnic acid treat conjunctivitis, endometritis, mastitis and oozing, pussy wounds.
Research has also found Usnea and usnic acid inhibits cancer cell formation and proliferation for breast, pancreatic and colorectal cancer as well as sarcomas.
Harvesting Usnea can be tricky as he likes to grow in high branches. I find harvest is easiest after a windy day or storm as the ground will be littered with branches covered in Usnea as well as individual lichens that have fallen to the ground. Usnea dries and stores easily and can be powdered as needed.
Use Usnea in sprays, washes, powders, oils, salves, extracts, and teas.
Want to learn more? The Usnea issue is on sale for $3.99 until the end of February 2015.
Do you use Usnea in your home or is this first time you’ve heard of it? Tell us your experiences with Usnea on our website!
Next week I’ll be sharing some of our favorite coloring and activity books.