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Herbal Musings by Brenda Roth

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

Lichen as medicine

On a recent trip to South Carolina, I took a lovely afternoon guided trip on the Waccamaw River (https://www.waccamawrivertours.com/). I used to live in South Carolina but never made this trip before. It was a treat and I learned so much about the river and even a few things about herbs.


Spanish moss hangs from trees everywhere in forested areas around the South Carolina low country and has many purposes but it isn’t medicine. Our guide that day pointed out another bright green moss-looking stuff hanging from the trees. He called it “old man’s beard.” I was immediately intrigued about it and so I did some research. Turns out that it was something we stock in the Yellow Barn store and is called Usnea.


Usnea is a lichen, a combination of fungi and algae that has a symbiotic relationship and you find it growing on old and near-dead trees in the forest. It doesn’t kill the tree but just uses it as a place to grow. Natives (it grows throughout the world but mostly Western Europe and North America) used Usnea to treat wounds, to help with pain and sore throats. According to one of my favorite sites, Herb Mentor (https://herbmentor.learningherbs.com/herb/usnea/), Usnea is a cooling herb and is used to treat inflammation or infection, especially in the lungs and the urinary tract. What is interesting about Usnea is, unlike modern antibiotics, it doesn’t kill all bacteria inside of you (like those good guys living in our guts). This is great news because if you take antibiotics for infections, you need to fix your gut afterwards. A lot more research needs to be done but still this is exciting news.


In my research, I also discovered that Usnea absorbs particulates from the environment so if it disappears in its natural habitat, that is a bad sign for what is happening in the air around us. Most herbalists don’t pull it from trees but glean it from the forest floor on downed branches after a storm. We don’t have it in Virginia, but it can be purchased from reputable herb companies or from our Yellow Barn store. It is truly remarkable as a decoction or as a tincture. You can also grind it up into a powder and put it directly on a skin wound or an infection.


After reading about this amazing lichen (it isn’t a plant by the way), I am questioning why modern science has not done more research with Usnea. In the meantime, it is up to us, the herbalists, to do our own research and uncover the amazing benefits of medicinal herbs that can be found all around us.


For more info on Usnea, check out Herb Mentor (there is a monthly fee if you want to join). I found a lot of info about Usnea on the internet with many advocates like Dr. Axe (https://draxe.com/nutrition/usnea/) and a new discovery, the Herbal Jedi on youTube.


Brenda is a student of herbalism and a graduate of Jean Howard’s herbalist course taught at the farm. She works most Thursdays and Fridays at the farm and loves making medicine in the Yellow Barn Store.


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