I have always found lichens fascinating. From the start, nothing is what it appears. They grow in a myriad of different structures and forms, all over the world. Lichens are not plants, instead it is a symbiotic relationship between alga and fungi. The fungi offers the structure of the lichen and the algae photosynthesizes the sun to provide food.
Here in Maine, they are some of the only green things to wildcraft during the winter. Lichens should not be gathered off of trees, I like to go around after storms and gather from downed branches or just wait for them to blow along my path like tiny eastern tumbleweeds. Most lichens are incredibly slow growing, so it is important to harvest respectfully.
Lichens have many uses, and ID can be difficult since there are so many variations. Some are powerful medicine, others can be used as dyes and they are all beautiful. There are a few that are poisonous, including Letharia Vulpina or wolf lichen. Bright, almost neon green, it can be used as a dye and was once used to poison wolves. One of the most widespread and medicinal lichens is Usnea, sometimes called Old Man’s Beard. Usnea comes in many different lengths, colors and formations, but there are a few things that are very specific to Usnea that I use when identifying it.
Usnea grows on dead or dying trees. They do not cause harm to the tree, but rather take advantage of the extra light that the loss of leaves on dying trees offer. Lichens are also very sensitive to air pollution and are sometimes referred to as a “canary in a coal mine” species to indicate poor air quality, especially sulfur dioxide. Keep this in mind when gathering, though they tend not to grow in places where air quality is poor they can be affected by acute circumstances, like wildfire and should not be use for medicine.
Usnea can be distinguished from other similar lichens like Staghorn by its internal structure, species in this genus have an elastic chord or axis running through the middle of the thallus. If you pull a segment of Usnea it will not break as others do, instead the outer layer will crack reviewing an inner white stretchy core.
In our area, Staghorn lichen and Usnea often grow together, they can be the same color and VERY similar in form. The top branch of this Larch tree has Usnea, while the lower fork has Staghorn.
The other subtle difference between the two is that like the structure of their namesake, Staghorn lichen’s branches are webbed, whereas Usnea’s branches come more or less right-off the adjoining stem. Think of how trees branch as opposed to how deer horns do, but the obvious difference is that internal elastic material. Usnea also has a more frizzy appearance at a distance. Staghorn is one of the few natural sources for purple dye, but is not medicinal. It was used in fragrances, but it can produce severe allergic reactions in some people so it is not used anymore.
Usnea is highly medicinal, though its extraction is a bit of a process. It has antimicrobial, antibacterial, vulnerary and anti-fungal properties. Historically touted as a treatment for staph infections, heal wounds, respiratory issues, phenomena, allergy symptoms, sore throat, fungal infections, urinary infections, sinus infections, vaginal infections, weight loss, etc. While it kills bacteria, it tends to only kill the harmful types, leaving beneficial bacteria alone.*
It can be used internally or topically and is one of the most versatile, accessible natural medicines out there (in my opinion). The active ingredient is usnic acid. When extracted by a lab and administered at high doses it has been shown to cause liver damage. As such, it should not be taken in large amounts for extended periods of time (months). Using tinctures or extractions for acute symptoms is generally considered safe and effective by herbalists. Most adverse reactions start with stomach upset, and use should be discontinued if it has that effect.
There are many ways to extract Usnea, most quick methods involve combining water and alcohol and heating at a low temp (in a crock pot) for hours, or days. I prefer a double extraction method where I first dry, grind and put up usnea in 100 proof vodka for 6 weeks. Then I strain the concoction, add water and heat on the stove top till the volume has reduced by half. I add the alcohol back and let it sit again for another month before the final straining and bottling. My thought is that the cold alcohol extraction helps to preserve anything that heating would break down and heating it later extracts constituents that need to be broken down by heat. Many of the hot methods are meant to get a quicker product. Since I have the time, I like to do big batches so I always have some around and I’m not trying to hurry up when I have need of its medicine. In a pinch the quick hot extractions are they way to go.
My latest batch of Usnea tincture was gathered from the forest behind our house, tinctured for two months, heat extracted and then put up for another month, before being strained and bottled. I find the bright green color beautiful and I’m excited to add it to my spring offerings in the Etsy shop.
I am continuing my herbal apprenticeship with Black Birds Daughter and ever grateful for this new chapter of my life. I have written before about what a tremendous gift this program has been, during a time in my life when I was going through so many transitions.
As the years have settled my soul, I find myself more comfortable with the green world. In learning more, I feel connected with an ancient system far superior than the ones modern humans have created. It has helped me unpack my colonialist baggage and lead me down a path I am excited to be on. Usnea has been with me since before I knew its name, on either side of the country. It is a boon from dying trees in the middle of winter. Truly, it is source of healing and hope, when lush green woods seem like such a distant memory.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.