Usnea - what is it and how is it used?

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Usnea - what is it and how is it used?

What is Usnea and how is it used?

Usnea is not widely used in the UK, however it is a valuable herb with an array of important uses including its benefit as a natural antibiotic and ability to help clear infection in the lungs.

  • What is it?
  • Why is it so valuable?
  • What is it used for?
  • Are there any cautions?
  • Some further reading

Usnea (Usnea Barbata)


What is it?

Usnea (Usnea Barbata) is a type of lichen commonly known as Old Man’s Beard due to its appearance. It hangs in grey green strands from the branches of trees such as oaks and pines. It is native to North America and Europe and can be found growing in forests and orchards. 

It has reported uses dating back to ancient Egypt where records have shown it being used to treat a variety of infections. It has also been used by indigenous peoples of North America for a range of applications including to fight lung infections and to stop bleeding.

Why is it so valuable? 

Usnea contains a constituent called Usnic acid which has shown to be a powerful plant based antibiotic.  It has antimicrobial, antibacterial, antiprotozoal and anti fungal actions and has proven to be effective in treating staphylococcus, streptococcus and pneumonococcus infections.

Usnic acid can also be effective in treating viral infections and specific types of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

What can it be used for?

Upper and lower respiratory tract infections: It has an affinity for the lungs and respiratory system and can be used to treat lingering respiratory infections and coughs. 

Skin: Staph aureus is often present in present in people with atopic dermatitis (eczema), and other skin conditions such as boils, folliculitis, impetigo and cellulitis.

Natural antibiotic: It can help to treat a variety of pathogens including bacteria which may be resistant to normal antibiotics. 

Viral infections: It has potent antiviral properties so can be used to treat a range of viruses.

Gastrointestinal infections: It can help to fight various types of gastrointestinal bacterial infections.

In practice Usnea combines well with Echinacea in treating sore throats, colds and flu and other respiratory tract infections. We often use it in combination with lymphatic and other herbs for treating eczema. Usnea combines well with Uva ursi for treating some urinary tract infections, and is often a useful adjunct in treating gastrointestinal infections. 

Are there any cautions?

There are no reported adverse affects, although high doses of isolated usnic acid have been shown to be toxic for the liver. Usnea should be diluted in water to avoid irritation.

Some further reading

Usnea Longissima: 

Usnic Acid:

Paul Bergner: Lymphatic and Antibiotic Herbs

Maciazg-Dorszynska: Antibacterial activity of lichen secondary metabolite usnic acid is primarily caused by inhibition of RNA and DNA synthesis