Botanical Names

  • Family Parmeliaceae
  • Usnea sp. (notably U. barbata, U. longissima, U. florida, U. ceratina, U. hirta, U. dasypoga, and U. plicata)

Common Names

  • Tree Moss, Old Man’s Beard, Beard Moss


 Animal testing has shown excessively large amounts of usnic acid is toxic to animals, but no toxicity has been noted in humans.

Do not use during pregnancy.

Usnea readily absorbs heavy metals in potentially toxic amounts, a problem faced by the people in far northern latitudes. In order to avoid potentially toxic compounds in the plant itself, harvest at least 300 feet from any road, factory, or polluted area.


 This plant is found worldwide in cool, damp places and commonly seen as the long, gray-green hairy moss growing on trees, mainly fruit, fir, oak and pine. Although slow-growing, it is extremely prolific and long-lived. It can be a tuft the size of a kiwi fruit or it may cover entire stumps and dying trees. It may be gray-green in smaller species or a mild yellow-green in the larger hanging strands.

The herb is a symbiote composed of two plants intertwined. The gray-green outer portion (cortex) contains the antibiotic compounds. The inner portion (thallus) is visible as a thin white thread inside the cortex. It contains immune-stimulating substances and stretches when wet, but is stiff when dry. The outer plant gives the herb its colour and grows around the inner plant. Usnea is round, not flat, and covered by minute projections called papillate. Collect only live plants growing on live trees.


 Obviously, its nicknames were derived from its appearance.

Usnea has a broad use across many cultures throughout the world as a general wound healer (Canary Islands), eupeptic (Italy), antiseptic (Argentina), antibacterial (Saudi Arabia), antitumor agent (Chile), and for delayed menstration (Korea and other Asian countries).

Native Americans viewed it as representing the male gender and the northly direction. To them, usnea's primary purpose was that of maintaining the lung system of the planet, namely, the trees. Its use for people was secondary. Plants provide medicinal action for the ecosystem by maintaining a healthy balance within itself and because humans and animals are a part of that ecosystem, the plants are able to help them as well. Usnea helps fight off infection in the trees, and thus serves a crucial function in maintaining rainfall patterns. We see this today. As more and more land upheaval takes place through stripping it of plants or polluting them with chemicals, the more we see a change in weather patterns in response. The same analogy holds true for humans ingesting so many chemicals and, as a result, sickness is rampant.

The Kiowa did use it for abscesses, while others used it as a dye.

Key Actions

  • anitbacterial
  • antifungal
  • anti-inflammatory
  • immune stimulant

Key Components

  • lichen acids (including usnic, thamnolic or hirtellic, usnaric or salazinic, lobaric, stictinic, protocetraric, everminic, barbatinic or rhizonic, diffractaic or dirhiazonic, and barbatolic acids)
  • mucilage

Medicinal Parts

 Entire lichen

It is active against tuberculosis, Pneumonococcus spp., Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella typhimurium, Escherichia coli, Streptococcus spp., enterococcus, Trichomonas, Candida spp., and various fungal strains.

In studies of over fifty-two different lichens, including usnea, the results showed that all were able to inhibit bacterial growth; but it is generally more active against gram-positive strains and not as effective against gram-negative bacteria.

Traditional Uses

 Powdered or whole, dried or fresh, the herb can also be eaten or used in a tea. It is a major herb for the treatment of mucous membrane inflammations of the lungs, intestines, throat, sinuses, urinary, and reproductive tracts. It relieves many internal problems from tuberculosis to acute bacterial infections.

Infusions and decoctions are used to treat inflammations of the mouth and pharynx. Lozenges and solid forms are available commercially.

As a douche, it is effective against trichomonas and yeast infections.

Tinctures from the herb are not very successful because the herb is not easily soluble in alcohol unless first mechanically ground. The outer sheath will powder readily, but the inner white thread will remain a ball. However, both will give up their constituents to an alcohol/water combination.

The plant is traditionally used throughout the world for skin infections, abscesses, upper respiratory and lung infections, vaginal infections, and fungal infections.

The lichen, soaked in garlic juice or a strong garlic decoction, has long been used for treating large gaping wounds.

Powdered, it can be sprinkled on the site of any infection, except for impetigo.

Western herbalists reportedly use it for fungus infections, lupus, mastitis, varicose and tropic ulcers, second and third degree burns, plastic surgery, athlete’s foot, ringworm, UTIs (urinary tract infections), colds, flu, bronchitis, pleurisy, pneumonia, sinus infections, Staph and Strep infections, and dysentery.

Usnea has been very effective in treating TB by weakening the growth of the cells. Some equate its effectiveness as equal to that of streptomycin, which would be two to seven droppersful of tincture three times a day lasting at least six months.

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