Old Man’s Beard: Free Forest Medicine

Above is Brian Schuch, a bushcraft expert from Cincinnati, Ohio.

The pale green lichen Usnea, also known as Old Man’s Beard, is a familiar face in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It hangs on tree branches and sometimes falls along footpaths. Technically, lichens are not really plants — instead, they’re a marriage of two separate organisms: fungus and algae.

Usnea has been important in ancient Greek and Chinese medicine, documented as a respiratory antibiotic since 1600 B.C. Usnea’s anti-microbial properties also mean it can be directly applied to an open wound to stave off infection as a kind of wilderness gauze.

Usnea is distinguished from other similar-looking lichens by a tell-tale trait: a thin, stretchy white cord that you can see when you pull it apart with your fingers. Above is my attempt at a close-up. You can see a more magnified photo here.

You can make a tea or tincture out of Usnea and use it to treat lung infections. However, water does not extract its medicinal compounds as well as alcohol, so a tincture would be most effective if you are choosing between the two.

The tincture recipe for making Usnea (per Michael Moore) is one part herb to five parts menstruum in 50 percent alcohol. (The “menstruum” is a solution of alcohol and water). To make the tincture, you simply put the lichen in a glass mason jar, then pour Everclear half way up, and pour water the rest of the way, then cap it and keep in the dark at room temperature to extract for three to six weeks.

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17 thoughts on “Old Man’s Beard: Free Forest Medicine

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    • I wouldn’t suggest smoking it. I imagine smoking it would be like smoking mullein. When you smoke mullein(also indicated for lungs and sever congestion), you will feel like you want to die because it causes such severe coughing (like convulsions) to rid your body of the phlegm and mucus. Tincture is much milder.

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  5. Yay for Usnea!

    It’s true that Usnea is not very water soluble, and not even completely alcohol soluble (but enough to make an effective tincture), which is why many herbalists make hot tinctures of Usnea for a more effective extraction.

    Usnea is specifically a cold, dry herb used for clearing heat and acute infection with a particular affinity for the mucus membranes. It is more effective for old, festering wounds if used in combination with some warmer and often more diffusive. Thyme or Monarda come to mind as helpful in those cases.

      • I’m guessing the helpfulness of making a hot tea from usnea changes with different scenarios and different human bodies, but I drank usnea tea when I had a really gnarly infection on my hand that got into my blood and started traveling up my arm… and I completely healed myself. So I say yes, it is useful and amazing and magical!

  6. Usnea is a wonderful thing indeed. If you want to make a tincture of it, as I did a few years ago, I believe you need to use 150 proof alcohol. For most herbs 80 or 100 proof is strong enough but not usnea. And you have to ask for alcohol that strong. You won’t find it on the shelves. (If this is not correct, let me know, but this is what an herbalist told me many years ago.)

    • alcohol rules depend on the state. you can buy everclear in oregon at the store, but in washington you need a permit to buy it, but you can get the permit in 3 weeks if you mail in a form and give them 5 dollars.

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