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.
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.
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 of 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.
Created by Jessica Godino, 2002
Jessica Godino has been teaching people about herbal medicine for almost two decades. After training with Susun Weed she co-founded Red Moon Herbs, an herbal medicine company. Her deep love for the plants and easygoing teaching style makes learning about herbal medicine accessible to everyone. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she practices acupuncture and teaches herbal medicine. She can be reached at www.clarityacupuncturenc.com.
Other Articles by Jessica Godino include:
Wildcrafting Guidelines - ten
steps to follow
Spring Tonics - Stinging Nettle,
Chickweed, and Dandelion
Calendula - useful on all external
Violet - a nutritional and
Hawthorn - a gentle but powerful
tonic for the heart
Vitex - a
supreme hormonal tonic for women