Mother Earth's Medicine Cabinet: Usnea - The Life Saving Lichen

Usnea is an incredible lichen that has many healing properties.  Lichen is an organism that grows in symbiotic relationship consisting of fungi and algae. A lichen grows slowly up against other surfaces in the wild. Usnea grows in forests all over the world, and it is known throughout as Old Man's Beard. Many people have likely seen the lichen and walked right past it. There are several hundreds of species of Usnea, but the species that hold the best healing properties are Usnea barbata and Usnea hirta. As with so many species of plants there is a lichen that resembles Usnea barbata and Usnea hirta.  It is called the Wolf Lichen, and THIS IS POISONOUS!!! Another look-alike that will not have pleasant effects is Oak Moss. For a guide to identifying lichen, please click here.

When I first learned about this magical lichen I was skeptical and then I tried it and was amazed. Not only does it seem fast acting, but I also didn't experience any side-effects like with some prescription medications. Usnea is a must in my medical cabinet and soon you'll learn why. Let's go over some of the healing properties and benefits of it first. According to various research, Usnea is not only an antibiotic, but it is also an anti-inflammatory, anti-tumoural, immunostimulant, antimicrobial, and anti-fungal. So many healing properties from one lichen!


The Usnic Acid from the Usnea can be used and is effective against:

  • Streptococcus (Strep throat) 
  • Staphylococcus  (Staph infections) 
  • Sore Throats
  • Skin Infections
  • Abscesses
  • Athlete’s Foot
  • Urinary Tract Infections
  • Coughs
  • Colds
  • Bacterium that is the common cause of Pneumonia

The antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties make it a great choice for homemade deodorant and as a natural preservative. I also learned in a pinch that it makes amazing kindling, but I would rather use it as medicine. Usnea can be purchased in capsules, powder form, as a tincture or you can go out and harvest it fresh yourself. You usually have to look up when searching for Usnea because it grows on trees, but it can also be found on broken branches lying on the ground. The lichen can be found growing on Oak, Apple, Cherry, Hickory, Mulberry, some Conifers, and various other hardwood trees.

Harvesting & Processing

The harvesting and processing are pretty easy. All you have to do is take a nice walk in the woods and look around at the trees and the ground where fallen branches can be found. When you find the lichen carefully pluck it from the tree. Sometimes a little chunk of bark will come with it and that's just fine. Once you have the amount you want, you can process it. I like to bring mine inside and separate it. I make a pile for dry storage, tinctures, and powder. My dry storage goes into an airtight jar just how it is – bark and all – but when I make a powder I remove all of the bark and crush it in a pestle and mortar, which will also go into a jar for ointment later or into capsules.

You can also usually buy Usnea from your favorite local herb shop.

Making Tea

Steep 1 teaspoon of the dried Usnea or 1/2 teaspoon of the powder in one cup of boiling water for about 5 minutes.  Strain and discard the Usnea or powder into the compost; ingesting it will be too much medicine at once. Please be mindful of lichen dosage and do your research before making! Everyone’s needs and sensitivities are different. I prefer to use honey and lemon for the added healing benefits. The lichen can sometimes be a little bitter, so you may wish to also add black tea and extra honey.

Making Tincture (click here for more information on tinctures)

Fill your jar ¾ of the way full with whole Usnea and add Spiced Rum or Vodka to the top. Place this in a cool dark place for about 3-6 weeks, shaking daily to help pull out the medicine and to be sure the lichen stays soaked. Keep an eye on the level of the alcohol as it will evaporate and you will have to add more. Some people prefer to strain off theirs, but I leave mine in the jar and occasionally add more to it. For adults use 3-4 ml three times a day, for a week and a half.

I have personally used Usnea for several different health issues and illnesses. I keep tincture in my medicine cabinet for coughs, colds, and sore throats. I have used it in a poultice for an infected wound on myself as well as on a dog who had a gunshot wound; it saved her life. It has proved a faster healer for an abscessed tooth than that prescribed by a dentist. I had an abscess in my gum and I pulled a piece of Usnea out of my tincture jar and placed it between my lip and gum, and not only did it relieve the pain and swelling, but it drew all of the infection out of my mouth within 3 days.

Fun Facts

Usnea is truly a life-saving lichen and has been for hundreds and thousands of years by Chinese, Greek, and Egyptian healers dating as far back as 1600 B.C.

The outer part of the Usnea contains the antibiotic properties while the inner portion contains immunity stimulating substances.

You can find it any time of year, but it is the easiest to spot in the winter.

It is used to make feminine products including douches and suppositories.

It grows everywhere in the world.

Different strains have different looks.

It was used very long ago and is still used today to make various colored dyes for textile companies. It is incredible because from this grayish-green lichen you will find colors like red, blue, purple, orange, green, and yellow dye.

One last note: Usnea is a powerful antibiotic with many other healing properties. Prolonged use of the lichen can result in you becoming immune to it as well as having daunting effects on the liver and kidneys. Do not use for more than 2 weeks at a time.