Learn how to harvest and use Usnea, a gray-green forest lichen with medicinal benefits! Also includes recipes for usnea tincture, infused oil, salve, and wound powder.
Usnea (Usnea spp), is also called beard lichen, lungs of the forest, or old man’s beard.
It’s considered a cooling, drying herb and is valued for its powerful action against gram positive bacteria (such as strep and staph). It’s also useful for wound care and respiratory system issues.
Usnea is a hanging and hair-like fruticose lichen, a symbiotic organism made of fungus + alga that grows on the bark and limbs of trees.
There are many species, so the exact type will vary depending on where you live, but a key feature to check for is a white stretchy core.
Find a thicker piece of the lichen, then carefully start pulling it apart. If it’s fresh and moist, then you should see what looks like a thin strand of white elastic stretching when you pull. If the usnea is dry, then it may snap, but you’ll still see a white core inside.
Usnea grows from trees in hair-like tufts, some are short, but some can grow very long. It’s often growing alongside other kinds of tree dwelling lichen (crustose – which looks flat-like, and foliose which looks leaf-like). You may even spot some moss in the mix too.
The usnea lichen will be rounded and and hairy looking – not flat or leafy looking.
In our area (zone 7, Appalachian mountains), we mainly find usnea growing in short tufts on wild cherry, oak, and poplar trees, but in other areas it will also grow on conifers, fruit trees such as apple, and other hardwoods such as hickory.
Do not pick usnea directly off of trees though! (More on this below.)
Where to Find
It enjoys moist areas with clean air – we find a fair abundance of usnea around our creek area, deep in the woods and far from roads and other houses/businesses.
Don’t gather from places such as roadsides, since it absorbs pollutants from the air. (Though since it’s sensitive to air pollution, you’re less likely to find it in those types of places in the first place.)
When to Forage
Usnea can be foraged all year ’round. The best time to look for it is after a wind or rain storm, since that’s when branches get blown to the ground.
We mainly search for it in winter and early spring, since there’s less greenery on the ground to distract from finding it, but really – you can stumble upon and harvest usnea any time of the year that you’re lucky enough to find some!
Collecting Usnea, Sustainably
While you may spot usnea growing directly on trees, it should only be gathered from naturally-fallen branches, or clumps directly dropped from trees onto the forest floor.
Don’t gather every bit you can find though!
Lichens grow and reproduce slowly and they’re important for the overall health of the forest. For this reason, you should only take the amount of beard lichen you need, and leave the rest on the forest floor to complete its natural life cycle, where it also acts as a food source for wildlife, such as deer, and a source of nesting material for birds.
To harvest, use your fingers to gently pull on the clump of usnea you’d like to gather. It should easily detach from the fallen branch or piece of bark on the ground.
You really don’t need a lot of usnea – a couple of small handfuls will make plenty of tincture, salve, and a powder to stock in your natural first aid kit. You can always go back for more if you run short of what you need, rather than take too much that goes to waste.
How to Store
After you’ve gathered usnea, it’s best to bring it home and process it into tincture or infused oil/salve over the next few days, if possible.
If you can’t get to it yet, you can air dry usnea and store in brown paper bags for future use. Just lay the pieces out in a single layer on a screen or clean dishtowel to dry for a few days.
Store in a cool dry place and out of direct sunlight and shelf life should be at least one year. If you find that the color has faded over time, it’s best to return it to the woods or compost, and pick a fresh harvest.
Can you grow usnea lichen at home?
The book, Radical Mycology, has an experimental technique to try if you’d like to cultivate usnea into your environment. They recommend removing a small piece of bark that contains lichen fragments, such as usnea, and place it in a piece of biodegradable gauze adhered to a new tree.
Now that you’ve harvested a couple of small handfuls, what can you do with usnea? Make local-sourced natural medicine!
Often called “nature’s antibiotic”, it’s used externally for wound healing and as a styptic (something that stops bleeding), and internally for sore throat; respiratory (pneumonia and bronchitis), GI, urinary tract, and sinus infection; and as an immune tonic.
It’s generally regarded as safe, but if you’re pregnant or have health concerns, check with a healthcare professional before using internally. As with all topical products, if you develop redness or irritation after using externally, discontinue use.
Don’t have a source of usnea, but want to make one of these projects? You can purchase some from Mountain Rose Herbs.
Usnea Wound Powder
If you’re out and about in the woods and get a wound that you can’t get treated right away, you could technically just pack fresh usnea onto the spot to help prevent infection, then cover with a bandage. However, a powder is a bit easier to use in its place!
To make usnea wound powder, take dried usnea and run it through a coffee grinder. You’ll notice that your powder will be filled with stringy bits that won’t pulverize. That’s okay. Just sift out the powder and add those extra bits into your nearest infusing jar of usnea tincture or infused oil. (Or compost/return to the forest.)
Once you have a nice soft sifted powder, store it in a small airtight container. A tiny tin of it is handy to keep in your backpack – use it as a styptic powder (stops bleeding) and/or to prevent infection in wounds while out in the field.
Usnea Infused Oil
Infused oils are used as a beneficial ingredient when you make homemade herbal products for your skin, such as salves, ointments, lotion bars, creams, and lip balm. You could even rub an infused oil directly on your skin (like a massage oil), but they aren’t taken internally.
To Make the Oil
Making an infused oil is ultra simple. You just need chopped pieces of usnea, covered with about twice as much oil. Here, I’m using 1/4 cup chopped plant to 1/2 cup oil, but you could use the same ratio for larger or smaller amounts. (example: 1 tbsp of chopped usnea to 2 tbsp oil, etc.)
- 1/4 cup chopped usnea
- 1/2 cup oil of choice
For best contact with the oil, blend the lichen and oil together using something like a blender, ninja, etc. If you don’t have a way to do that, chop the usnea up finely with scissors, then cover with twice as much oil.
What Type of Oil to Use
You can use whatever type of oil you have available. Olive oil is a classic choice for herbalists and it’s widely available at local stores. However, it is a little on the heavy side, as far as oils go, so it can take extra time to soak into your skin. For a lighter feeling option, you could try a faster absorbing oil such as jojoba, rice bran, grapeseed, or apricot kernel oil. Two good choices for a ‘medium feel’ oil that are also great for your skin are sunflower oil and sweet almond oil.
There’s no wrong oil to use really though. They will all work nicely, just some will feel lighter while others will feel oilier on your skin. (To test out your oil, dab a little of the plain oil on your arm, rub it in, and see how long it takes to soak into your skin, and how it feels to you.)
Directions to Infuse Usnea Oil
Place the lichen/oil mixture into a heatproof jar – a half pint jar works nicely – then set the uncovered jar down into a pan filled with several inches of water. Heat over a low burner for 3 to 4 hours. (We use a pot of water on our woodstove in the winter.) Monitor and make sure the water doesn’t evaporate out. Remove from heat. You can use the infused oil right away, or cover the jar with a lid and let it infuse in a warm spot (we use the top of our fridge) for 2 to 3 weeks longer.
Usnea Salve Recipe
Usnea salve, or ointment, is used for its antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal benefits. It may be especially useful if you have a persistent skin infection or condition that won’t clear up, or can be used for things like boils, mild cuts, and scrapes.
(Black walnut salve is also a helpful antifungal, so you could make a salve that combines black walnut and usnea infused oils for a synergistic variation!)
To make, combine 1.75 oz of infused oil with 0.25 ounces of beeswax. Place in a heatproof jar, or a cleaned tin can for easy cleanup, and set down into a small pot of water. Heat the pan over medium to medium low heat until the wax melts. Pour into tins. Fills about 1 two-ounce tin.
Tinctures are herbal preparations made with food-grade alcohol which best extracts many medicinal benefits. This alcohol tincture would also be a fantastic addition to a DIY sore throat spray, since it’s anti-inflammatory and an infection fighter.
While there are several methods of making, involving weight and extended heat time, we prefer this ultra simple folk-style extract method. “Parts” are given as volume ratios and could be anywhere from tablespoons to cups. Just replace the word “part” in the recipe, with whatever you’re using as a measurement device.
(Examples: If you only have 1 tbsp chopped herb available then 1 tbsp usnea, 2 tbsp boiling water, 3 tbsp alcohol OR if you have 1/4 cup chopped usnea then you’d use 1/4 cup usnea, 1/2 cup boiling water, 3/4 cup alcohol.)
If you have high proof alcohol – 151 Everclear:
- 1 part chopped usnea (fresh is preferred, dried is ok)
- 2 parts boiling water
- 3 parts high proof drinkable alcohol (151 proof Everclear, or 75.5% alcohol by volume)
To make: Place the finely chopped usnea in the bottom of a heatproof half-pint jar. Cover with the boiling water, then add the alcohol. Cover with a lid, then shake well. Store in a warm spot – we use the top of our fridge – for a minimum of 4 to 6 weeks. Strain and store in a cool dark spot. Shelf life is at least one year.
If you have lower proof vodka – 80 proof (40% alcohol):
Since lower proof alcohols contain more water than Everclear or high proof alcohols, you don’t need to add water to this mix. (Doing so could make the alcohol amount too low and it won’t be preserved properly.)
- 1 part chopped usnea (fresh is preferred, dried is ok)
- 5 parts vodka (80 proof, or 40% alcohol by volume)
To make: Place the finely chopped usnea in the bottom of a half-pint jar. Cover with the alcohol. Place a lid on the jar and shake well. Store in a warm spot – we use the top of our fridge – for at least 4 to 6 weeks. Strain and store in a cool dark spot. Shelf life is at least one year.
Amount to use:
Tincture dose will vary widely depending on age, size, etc. We dose just 3 to 4 drops in a spoonful of raw honey several times a day, while others recommend a full dropperful 3 to 5 times per day. Start low and slow and work up to what does best for your constitution. For questions or concerns, check with your healthcare professional.
References & Further Reading
Auerbach, Paul S. Auerbach’s Wilderness Medicine. Elsevier, Philadelphia, PA.
Daniel, George H. and Nicholas Polanin. Tree-Dwelling Lichens. New Jersey Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1205.
Easley, Thomas and Steven Horne. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. North Atlantic Books, Berkley, CA.
Hobbs, Christopher. Usnea: The Herbal Antibiotic. Botanical Press, Capitola, CA.
McCoy, Peter. Radical Mycology. Chthaeus Press, Portland, OR.
Young, Devon. The Backyard Herbal Apothecary. Page Street Publishing Co, Salem, MA.
Our articles are for information and idea-sharing only. While we aim for 100% accuracy, it is solely up to the reader to provide proper identification. Be sure to seek out local foraging classes and plant walks, and invest in mushroom and foraging guides suitable for the area you live in, since some wild foods are poisonous, or may have adverse effect.