foraging usnea

 Foraging Usnea: Identify, Prepare, and Use

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Let’s wander into the beautiful world of foraging Usnea. This magical lichen isn’t just a plant; it’s a healer that’s been charming herbalists and lovers of natural medicine for ages. Its magical properties not only intrigue, but also offer a connection to the ancient wisdom of the natural world. In this comprehensive guide, we will take you on a journey to discover how to identify, harvest, and utilize this remarkable plant to harness its healing powers.

What is Usnea?

Usnea, commonly known as Old Man’s Beard, is a fruticose lichen that grows abundantly in pristine forests. With its intricate appearance resembling delicate strands of silvery-green hair, Usnea is not only interesting to look at but also a treasure trove of medicinal benefits. Rich in antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties, this lichen has been used traditionally to accelerate wound healing, soothe sore throats, and boost the immune system.

Whether you are a seasoned forager or a beginner eager to explore the wonders of the natural world, this guide will provide you with essential knowledge on sustainable foraging practices, proper preparation techniques, and easy ways to incorporate Usnea into your daily wellness routine.

foraging usnea

Where to Find Usnea

Usnea thrives in damp spots where the air is pure. Around creeks and waterways, nestled deep in the woods and away from roads and buildings, I often find a good amount of it.

It’s best to avoid foraging Usnea from areas near roadsides because it soaks up pollutants from the air. And honestly, due to its sensitivity to air pollution, you probably won’t find much of it in those places anyway.

Identifying Usnea in the wild

When you’re set to begin foraging Usnea, the first thing is to learn how to recognize it. This lichen is fond of clinging to tree branches and trunks, particularly in the older, cleaner air of mature forests. Look out for its hair-like strands, sometimes resembling a beard, draping from the tree limbs. The color of Usnea can vary, ranging from a light green to a rich, deep green, and sometimes even brown, depending on its variety and habitat.

Once you spot what you think might be Usnea, gently grasp a strand and give it a soft pull. What’s really special about Usnea is its inner elasticity. Inside its fuzzy, delicate exterior lies an elastic core, kind of like a miniature spring.

When you stretch the strand, you’ll notice it extends a bit and then springs back into place. This unique stretchy feature is your clue that you’ve truly found Usnea. It’s nature’s own way of saying, ‘Yes, this is the one!’ While other lichens might look similar from afar, they don’t have this same stretchy characteristic.

foraging usnea
Foraging usnea - from fallen tree branches

The medicinal properties of Usnea

Usnea is renowned for its potent medicinal properties, making it a valuable addition to any herbal medicine cabinet. This lichen is rich in antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory compounds, which contribute to its wide range of therapeutic uses.

One of the most notable benefits of Usnea is its ability to support the immune system. Studies have shown that Usnea exhibits strong antimicrobial activity against a variety of pathogens, including bacteria and fungi. This makes it an excellent natural remedy for respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, as well as urinary tract infections. [Source]

Usnea also possesses wound-healing properties, making it a valuable ally in promoting the healing process. Its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory actions help to prevent infections and reduce inflammation, allowing wounds to heal more quickly.

In addition to its immune-boosting and wound-healing properties, Usnea has been traditionally used to soothe sore throats and alleviate symptoms of respiratory conditions, such as coughs and congestion. Its mucilaginous nature provides a soothing effect on irritated mucous membranes, helping to relieve discomfort and promote healing. [Source]

Foraging Usnea sustainably

Harvest Usnea in a way that is respectful to the surrounding ecology, since it grows very slowly and is at risk for over-harvesting. 

When foraging Usnea, I always practice sustainable methods, ensuring there’s plenty left for the future. In my experience, there’s no need to pluck Usnea from living trees. Instead, I look for pieces that have naturally fallen to the ground or are on downed branches. There’s usually more than enough this way, and it’s a respectful approach to gathering this remarkable earth medicine.

Before you start, make sure to get permission if you’re on private land, and always check local rules when foraging in public spaces. It’s also important to find clean, unpolluted areas, as Usnea is quite sensitive to air quality. Pristine forests are usually the best spots.

Learn more about ethical and sustainable foraging with this article: 9 Basic Principles of Ethical Wildcrafting for Beginners

foraging usnea
Foraging Usnea - Usnea blown to the ground by the wind

Harvesting 

Harvesting and foraging usnea is simple.  I usually just head out on a foraging walk in an area where I know usnea to grow vigorously.  As I spot it on the forest floor or on downed branches, I simply collect it and place it in my foraging bag. A little goes a long way.  Usually a handful or two is all you need. 

Preparing Usnea for medicinal use

Usnea can be used both fresh and dried, depending on the application. Fresh Usnea is often preferred for its potency, especially when making tinctures, as the active compounds are more readily extracted. The fresh lichen is typically soaked in alcohol, which draws out its medicinal properties.

Dried Usnea, on the other hand, is great for long-term storage and can be used in various preparations like powders and capsules. When dried, it can be easily ground into a powder and incorporated into different herbal formulations. The drying process does concentrate its active constituents, but some volatile compounds might be less potent compared to using it fresh.

Whether you choose to use Usnea fresh or dried often depends on your specific needs, the type of remedy you’re preparing, and the availability of the lichen. In my own practice, I like to use fresh Usnea for tinctures to maximize its medicinal benefits, but I also keep dried Usnea on hand for its versatility and convenience.

foraging usnea
Foraging Usnea for Tinctures

Usnea recipes and remedies

There are numerous ways to incorporate Usnea into your daily wellness routine. From wound powders to tinctures, this lichen is a versatile ally in natural healthcare. Here are some key Usnea recipes and remedies that you can easily prepare:

Usnea Wound Powder

Usnea wound powder is excellent for treating minor cuts and scrapes. To make it, simply dry Usnea and grind it into a fine powder. This powder can be directly applied to wounds to reduce infection and promote healing. Its natural antibacterial properties make it an effective, gentle alternative to commercial antiseptics.

Usnea Infused Oil

Creating an Usnea infused oil is a soothing way to harness its healing benefits. Gently heat chopped, dried Usnea in a carrier oil like olive or almond oil over low heat for a few hours, allowing the lichen’s properties to infuse into the oil. Strain it and store in a cool, dark place. This oil can be used on its own for skin irritations or as a base for making salves.

Usnea Salve

To make an Usnea salve, start with Usnea infused oil. Mix the infused oil with beeswax, heating until the beeswax melts and blends with the oil. Once cooled, this salve can be applied to wounds, rashes, or skin infections. The salve combines the medicinal properties of Usnea with the soothing, protective qualities of beeswax.

Usnea Tincture

Usnea tincture is a potent way to use this lichen internally. There are many methods used to make usnea tincture, but I usually use the dual extraction method.  The resulting tincture can be used in small doses to boost the immune system, especially during cold and flu season, or to treat respiratory infections.  For those interested in creating their own Usnea tincture, we have a comprehensive guide that walks you through the process step-by-step. Usnea Tincture Recipe

If you don’t have access to local or homegrown herbs, I highly recommend purchasing them from Mountain Rose Herbs. They are my favorite place to buy high-quality, organic dried herbs and herbal products. As a company they believe in people, plants, and planet over profit and only ever source their herbs ethically and sustainably. It is through this ethical, responsible sourcing, that they are able to offer one of the largest selections of certified organic herbs, spices, and botanicals in North America.

Bryoria Lichen
Alectoria Lichen
foraging usnea
Foraging Usnea

Usnea Look-alikes

While Usnea is relatively easy to identify once you are familiar with its characteristics, there are a few lichens that may resemble Usnea at first glance. One such lichen is known as Bryoria, commonly known as “horsehair lichens.” Although Bryoria may look similar to Usnea, it has distinct differences when examined more closely. The strands of Bryoria slender and hair-like, tending to grow hanging (pendent) or like a small bush.

Another lichen that bears a resemblance to Usnea is known as Alectoria. Alectoria, also known as “Witch’s Hair” shares some similarities with Usnea in terms of appearance. However, the body, of Alectoria is stringy, and extensively branched. Each branch usually divides into two .

To avoid any confusion, it’s recommended to study the distinguishing features of Usnea and its look-alikes before embarking on your foraging journey. Taking the time to familiarize yourself with these differences will ensure that you can confidently identify Usnea in the wild.

Safety precautions and contraindications

While Usnea is generally safe for most individuals, there are a few precautions to keep in mind. If you have an allergy to lichens or any related species, it’s best to avoid using Usnea internally or topically. Additionally, if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking any medications, it’s always wise to consult with a healthcare professional before incorporating Usnea into your wellness routine.

References and Further Reading

  1. Auerbach, Paul S. Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine. Elsevier, Philadelphia, PA.
  2. Daniel, George H. and Nicholas Polanin. Tree-Dwelling Lichens. New Jersey Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1205.
  3. Easley, Thomas and Steven Horne. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. North Atlantic Books, Berkley, CA.
  4. Hobbs, Christopher. Usnea: The Herbal Antibiotic. Botanical Press, Capitola, CA.
  5. McCoy, Peter. Radical Mycology. Chthaeus Press, Portland, OR.
  6. Sepahvand A, Studzińska-Sroka E, Ramak P, Karimian V. Usnea sp.: Antimicrobial potential, bioactive compounds, ethnopharmacological uses and other pharmacological properties; a review article. J Ethnopharmacol. 2021 Mar 25;268:113656. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2020.113656. Epub 2020 Dec 1. PMID: 33276059.
  7. Young, Devon. The Backyard Herbal Apothecary. Page Street Publishing Co, Salem, MA.

1 thought on “ Foraging Usnea: Identify, Prepare, and Use”

  1. Perfect timing! My adult daughter presently has pneumonia and I am guessing I have caught it from her, both hacking away. Going to search for this tomorrow. Just had two days of heavy winds and there must be downed branches in a white pine forest I recently discovered nearby. She has medical coverage and is currently on antibiotics. Alas, I don’t have coverage. Thus, you are providing me with an alternative option. Not just an immediate solution, but a whole different mindset that I was never exposed to. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Laura

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