In forests full of evergreens and aspens, beyond creeks, ponds, rivers, and lakes, deep in the mountains, on the limbs of trees, grows a lichen that provokes imagination. It looks like a witch’s hair or an old man’s beard. The scraggly, dangling tendrils grow slowly and are found in forests where moisture is abundant and air is clean. That lichen is usnea, a symbiotic union of fungus and alga. It grows on dying or weakened leafless trees. It isn’t damaging them, just taking advantage at the end of their life cycle. It grows slowly but can grow to 10–20cm, depending on air quality in the forest. The cleaner it is, the easier usnea will grow.
That it is both an alga and a fungus makes it a complex medicinal. The fungus aspect of usnea extracts best in water, where the photosynthesizing alga extracts best in alcohol. Herbalists have been working for years trying to find the best way to utilize this lichen for medicine, and you might hear us disagree on proper extraction and use.
As with many things, it takes some thought and discernment to utilize a more complicated plant like this.
Traditionally, people would make teas, poultices, and steams with usnea or include it in medicinal stews. These are all water extraction methods. High-proof alcohol wasn’t widely available until around the 1400–1500s, which is when people also began using it in medicinal preparations. Today, we do a double extract for usnea to get both the water- and alcohol-soluble components in one easy-to-use tincture. Additionally, I use glycerin as a stabilizer to prevent the separation of the polysaccharides in the suspension.
I hope you’ll enjoy learning about this wonderful lichen and its many uses. It’s an ally that is used sparingly but definitely has a role to play in a well-stocked herbal medicine cabinet.
This issue was published before or after your membership. If you're interested in purchasing the issue separately, you may do so below.
Usnea Coloring Page
Taking a Lichen to Usnea
The Green Bridge Between Worlds