Usnea is a lichen genus that grows in high altitude forests in Colorado. A lichen is a symbiotic relationship of a fungus and an algae. The fungus provides the water and protection, and the algae provide the food converted from the sun. Usnea is a widespread genera; representatives can be found on most continents. Usnea is an interesting native species, both for it's medicinal properties, and it's environmental significance. For example, Usnea spp. is known for it's antibacterial properties, and can be used for first aid in wild to staunch wounds. Interestingly, Usnea is very susceptible to air born pollutants, and serves as an indicator species for pollution in a forest ecosystem. The primary focus of this piece is the medicinal uses of Usnea, as well as its possible place in Ayurvedic medicine.
The process for choosing this plant was relatively simple. I come across the lichen frequently during hikes in the high country. I became interested in it's medicinal properties when a companion briefly described them. After searching through various classical Ayurvedic texts on herbology, as well the Yoga of Herbs, I found that this plant has not yet been described Ayurvedically.
BOTANY AND ECOLOGY
Latin Name: Usnea barbata & other spp.
Common Names: Beard moss, hair lichen, old man's beard, tree moss, witch's broom
Genus: Usnea spp.
Usnea is a fruticose type lichen, characterized by freestanding branching tubes (or papillae) of the thallus (or body). The color is grey/green. The papillae can range in size from 2" to 3' (The species collected for this project averaged 2"). The threads are coarse and dry, with a white elastic thread like inner core (or hyphae). The central strand is surrounded by a medulla and outer cortex. Usnea grows on the branches or trunks of trees (mostly conifers in this region). The reproductive cycle of lichens is complicated, involving asexual or sexual reproduction of both the fungi and the algae (there is some variation among species, although the majority reproduce asexually). The fruiting bodies are pale green.
Usnea grows in cool, damp forests on tree branches and trunks, such as Apple, Douglas Fir, Oak, and Pines (1). The lichen is often found in hilly regions, and moist open sites. Usnea is a cosmopolitan genus, with representatives found on almost every continent, and contains at 600 different species.
Time of growth, flowering and fruiting (phenology)
There is no specific time of growth for Usnea. The fruiting body of the fungal component is pale green and produce unicellular spores; the algae reproduce asexually within the lichen.
Usnea is a widespread genera. However, like most lichen, Usnea is delicate and highly susceptible to atmospheric pollutants and environmental changes; therefore, it is an important indicator of air quality in the forest.
Closely related species: Usnea could possibly be confused with a moss or other lichens at first glance. To identify Usnea, gently pull apart the papillae and look for the elastic white internal core; other lichens will appear grey/green throughout. In addition, Usnea does not change color throughout the growing season as other lichen species do.
Collection: The mycelia (or threads of the thallus) are harvested.
Primary Constituents: Usnic Acid - a potent antibiotic and antifungal agent. Usnic acid works against gram-positive bacteria by penetrating the cell walls of the bacteria, blocking ATP production. Contains mucilage, helpful in easing irritating coughs. Edible and high in vitamin C, although it is very bitter so not very palatable.
Preparation: Tincture, tea, or powdered (tincture is more effective then tea). The herb does not extract fully into water, when preparing a tea, break apart and begin extraction with a small amount of alcohol first.
Physiological Effects: Analgesic, antibacterial, antibiotic, antifungal, anti inflammatory, anti parasitic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, anti tumor, antiviral, bronchial dilator, expectorant, febrifuge, immune stimulant, vasodilator, vulnerary, deodorant, candidicide, fungicide, parasiticide.
Medicinal Uses: Effective with infections, especially those involving mucus membranes. Usnea has a special affinity for the lungs and bladder. The lichen has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and is specifically effective against gram-positive bacteria such as strep and staph. Indications: Bacterial infection, boil, bronchitis, Candida, Chlamydia, colds, cough, cystitis, diarrhea, flu, dysentery, giardia, gonorrhea, hemorrhage, impetigo, infection, inflammation, leucorrhea, lupus, mastitis, pleurisy, parasite, pharyngosis, pneumonia, sinus infection, sore throat, staph infection, strep throat, swelling, trichomonas, tuberculosis, urethritis, urinary tract infection, wart, wound, yeast. Can be moistened and used directly on a wound.
From Stephen Harrod Buhner's instructions from 'Herbal Antibiotics':
Usnea is only partially water soluble. To make the strongest tea or decoction, grind the herb first, then add enough alcohol to wet the herb, let it sit covered for 30 minutes, add hot water, and let steep
For disease prevention or immune stimulation: 1 teaspoon (5 mls) herb in 6 ounces (177ml) hot water, steep 20 minutes; 2 to 6 ounces (59 to 177 mls) up to 3 times a day. In acute conditions: up to 1 quart (1 litre) a day.
Treatments: Impetigo, ringworm - topically apply tea, diluted tincture or paste. Eye inflammation, mastitis- compress. Throat infection- gargle. Sinus infection- throat spray. Candida, Chlamydia, leucorrhea, trichomonas- douche or sitz bath.
Other Use: Used in soaps and deodorants for it's antibacterial properties. Also used in diapers and menstrual pads due to its absorbent properties. Used in powders for athletes foot. Indigenous peoples of Mexico use it to make a fermented corn beverage.
Contraindications: None listed. No known side effects, not reported to interfere with action of common medications.
Taste (rasa): Bitter
Energetics (Virya): Cool, dry - PK- V+
Post Digestive Effect (Vipak): Cool?
Special Effect (prabhava): ?
Srotamsi: Prana vaha srotas, Ambu vaha srotas, Shukra vaha srotas ?, Mutra vaha srotas, purisha vaha srotas
Ayurvedic Uses: Bitter- heals parasites, thirst, skin disorders, fever, nausea, burning sensations, cleanses throat, drying, easily digested. In excess depletes the tissues. Use for infections with Pitta component, infections of the mucosal membrane, to fight krumi (parasites, bacteria, fungi, yeasts), affinity for lungs and bladder.
Author: Kourtney Nelson
1. Bridgette Mars, 'The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine', May 2007, Basic Health Publications
2. Irwin Brodo, 'Discover the Amazing Story of lichens of the genus Usnea', http://nature.ca/discover/treasures/plnts/tr3/usn_e.cfm
3. Gregory Tilford, 'Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West', June 1997, Mountain Press Publishing Company
4. Wikipedia, 'Usnea', October 2008, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usnea
5. Pekka Halonen, 'Studies on the Lichen Genus Usnea in East Fennoscandia and Pasific North America', OULU Dept. of Biology, 2000.
6. University of Berkeley, 'Lichens: More on Morphology', http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/fungi/lichens/lichenmm.html
7. Kristina Articus, 'Phylogenetic Studies in Usnea (Parmilaceae) and Allied Genera', 2004, http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/fungi/lichens/lichenmm.html
8. Kiva Rose, 'Usnea: Healing From the Forrest', July 2008, http://bearmedicineherbals.com/?p=443
9. Holistic Online.com, Usnea Herb information, http://www.holisticonline.com/Herbal-Med/_Herbs/h322.htm
10. James Duke, 'Handbook of Medicinal Herbs', CRC Press, 2002