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Herbal Monograph

Herb: Usnea  Lichen    (Usnea spp)

Other Names:    tree moss, old man’s beard, beard moss.    (2)

Old Man’s Beard   (22) (31, pgs 8-10); 

             Usnea Species Used in Medicine: U. hirta (L); U. barbata (L); U. florida (L) Wigg; U.           longissima  (Ach.); U. dasypoga(Ach.) Rohl {umlaut} emend. Mot.; U. bayle; U. lobata Hoffm. and U. diffracta —Source: Hagers Handbuch der Pharmazeutischen Praxis (14) (31-pg 9)  

Character/Energetics:  cooling  (31, pg. 15)   

Meridians/Organs/Body Parts affected:   lungs, spleen, kidney urinary, respiratory, gastrointestinal   (31, pgs. 15-16)                                                

Part(s) used:                                                                                                             

Identification & Harvesting: Research into this species is not yet complete, making it difficult to establish which lichens are used for the extraction of the active principles, and which have been described by earlier botanists.  In general, a whitish, reddish, or blackish lichen, found in cool, damp places (2)

Medicinal Lichens (general): They are bright red and yellow, and grow on rocks. They are long wispy strands of gray-green hair, hanging like beards from hard-wood trees in rainy forests. Or they are floppy and leaf-like. Some have raised vein-like structures, and look like something out of a grade B science-fiction movie that might fall on your neck and take over your mind.  (31, pg-1)

            Usnea or Old Man’s Beard, hangs in gray-green strands from pines, oaks, Douglas fir, apple trees and other fruit trees in orchards and forests throughout the northern hemisphere…. (31–pg. 8)

             Identifying Usnea Species: The outer portion (the cortex) of the usnea should be gray-green * It should be round rather than flat * Pull apart a main stem (thallus). It should have a slender white cord inside. The cord will be quite elastic when the lichen is moist (in wet weather), but stiff when it is dry.  See illustrations (31–pg. 12)        

Active Constituents:    Lichen acids (polyketides) incl. (+)-usnic acid, thamnolic acid, lobaric acid, stictinic acid, evernic acid, barbatic acid, diffractaic acid, protocetraric acid;  proportions differ from one species to another  (2); usnic acid    (22)       

Actions:   Antimicrobial  (2); antibiotic, antibacterial, antimicrobial, expectorant, immune strengthener (22);

antibiotic, immune strngthening, papaverine-like activity (relaxing to smooth muscle  especially the colon or bronchi.)                                                                                                                                         

Conditions & Uses:   Used for inflammation of the mouth and pharynx.    (2)

Usnea lichen tincture is reportedly effective for treatment of trichomonas infection.    (6) Usnea or old man’s beard as it is sometimes referred contains usnic acid, a natural antibiotic proven effective against gram positive bacteria, such as Streptococcus (strep throat), Staphylococcus(impetigo, etc.), Mycobacterium tuberculosis and other fast growing species. Scientists think that usnic acid works by disrupting cellular metabolism, either by preventing the formation of ATP (the cells’ energy source), or by the uncoupling of oxidative phosphorylization. Usnea may also be superior to the drug Flagyl (metronidazole). Usnea is effective against Trichomonas, a parasite which can cause among other things, a serious infection of the uterine cervix. Flagyl is widely prescribed for Trichomonas infection, but it is now believed to also cause cancer.   (22)

       Usnea- a common herb, that’s been used for centuries for colds, respiratory ailments, urinary tract infections, strep throat and other strepand staph infections…. (31, cover)

        “Hager’s Handbook”, an authoritative German reference on medicinal plants, says of Usnea: Generally, Usnea in the earlier therapeutics beside other lichens found wide application against mucous membrane conditions, hemmorage, diarrhea, and dysentery as well as stomach weakness.  (31-pg. 9)

The discovery of penicillin during World Way ll stimulated the search for other antibiotic substances from plants. Lichens attracted interest as early as 1944 because of their traditional uses. More than 50% of the species tested contained antibiotic lichen acids. Many of these acids are active, the most common being usnic acid of Usnea and other genera….

These lichen acids are effective against gram positive bacteria, such as Streptococcus…,Staphylococcus…, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and other fast-growing species. The acids have little effect on gram negative bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli

that inhabit the digestive tract. This may be a mixed blessing. It would be nice if Usnea extract inhibited Salmonella and other pathogenic bacteria of the gram-negative type. On the other hand, it is good that E. coli is not much affected. E. coli can be beneficial, part of our “body ecology,” so it is noteworthy that Usnea may not adversely affect them….(31–pg 11) 

Usnic acid is more effective against some bacterial strains than penicillin. For instance, usnic acid completely inhibited the growth of different strains of human tuberculosis in dilutions of 1:20,000-1:50,000 and weakened their growth at 1:200,000-1:2,000,000. It inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus, Streptococcus and Pneumonococcus at 1:20,000 (31–pg. 12)

Proven Clinical or Commercial Uses of Usnea spp.: fungus infection (various fungal strains); acute bacterial infection; lupus erythematosus(an auto-immune disease); trichomonas, a parasitic vaginal infection; mastitis (a European cream); varicose and trophic ulcers (Binan, a Russian product); second and third degree burns (Binan); Plastic surgery (Binan); Athlete’s foot (Usno, made by the Farmos group, Turku, Finland); Ringworm (Usno); urinary tract infectionsurethritis, cystitis,; colds and flu, bronchitis; pleurisy; pneumonia; tuberculosis; sinus infection. (31–pg. 13)

Combinations:  The tea from the whole lichen can be combined with 3 grams (a few slices) of licorice, and a few slices of ginger root for colds and flu. Drink 1 cup of the decoction up to 3 times a day for up to 10 days, if needed.   (31–pg. 17)

Precautions:    Overdose is possible, but symptoms have yet to be described.    (2)

Usnic acid has the potential to be toxic, but because it is poorly and slowly absorbed when in either tea or alcoholic solution, there is little cause for concern.  (31–pg. 14)      

Tincturing Process:   Usnea lichen is hairy, hence its moniker, “Old Man’s Beard.” 

Extremely tedious to process through Vita Mix due to Usnea’s large bulk/low weight ratio. Jan. 10, ‘95: One pound took 1.5 hrs to tincture * Feed into Vita Mix loosely, somewhat breaking up the (dry) usnea * Fill to 3/4  level in Vita Mix container * Run machine

45 seconds forward; 22.5 seconds reverse.   (1)

Applications:   Usnea tincture is the strongest form for antibiotic use–the usnic acid is poorly water soluble.  Dilute the tincture before using–it can be irritable.  (31–pg. 15)

Divination: Astrological conditions also supposedly influenced healing with lichens. Their virtues were thus greater when “the moon is in the increase in the house of Venus.”  (31, pg 6)

Dosage:    20 to 40 drops 2-4 times daily.     (22) 

      For effective treatment of trichomonas infection, take tincture every two hours for a week or     two.    (6)

      * Use a dropperful 2-3x/day for acute bacterial infection. 

                  * Apply full-strength or diluted 50-50 with water (check for individual sensitivity first!) With a cotton swab externally for any cuts, especially if infected. Apply full strength several times a day for impetigo. 

      * Put a dropperful in water and gargle several times a day for sore throat or strep throat. 

      * Put drops of tincture in water, and fill a plastic spray bottle (old antihistamine sprayer, etc.) Squirt a small quantity up the nasal passages several times daily for sinus infection. To this mixture it is good to also add a few drops of sage oil or of goldenseal tincture.

    * Add to formulas for colitis, and urinary tract infection (such as urethritis or cystitis), or lung and bronchial tract conditions (such as bronchitis, pleurisy, pneumonia or  tuberculosis).

      * Put a dropperful in water and use as a douche, taking it internally as well, for trichomonas.

      * The tea from the whole lichen can be combined with 3 grams (a few slices) of licorice, and a few slices of ginger root for colds and flu. Drink 1 cup of the decoction up to 3 times a day for up to 10 days, if needed.   (31–pg. 17)                                                                                                                        

General Notes:   Lichens:  No, these are not plants from Mars or figments of a Star Trek set designer’s imagination. They are lichens–highly specialized plants with a long history of use. Dye for Scottish tweeds, a medieval hair wash, fodder for caribou, an ingredient in an Icelandic bread recipe, the color for the chemist’s litmus paper, and modern European antibiotic ointments and treatments for athlete’s foot all come from lichens.–Llano, G.A. 1948. Economic Uses of Lichens. Economic Botany  2:15.  (31–pg 1 and footnote pg 20)



(1) Cayuga Botanicals Research Data, Usnea Tincture file

(2)  PDR for Herbal Medicines (Medical Economics Co., 1998), p. 1199-1200

(6) Planetary Herbology by Michael Tierra, C.A., N.D., pg. 115

(22) Herbs and Herbal Formulas (booklet) by Mark Hershiser, pg. 19

(31) Usnea: The Herbal Antibiotic by Christopher Hobbs  (booklet)