How a Lichen Saved the Day

The Usnea lichen is also known as “Old Man’s Beard.” Here wilderness skills expert Brian Schuch models for the camera.

The day Usnea saved began with a Facebook chat.

“How’s things?” I asked my friend.

“I am ILL,” she replied.

“Tell me about your symptoms,” I said.

“It started out as a cough. It’s really just a bad cough, and I feel like it’s in my lungs a bit. My upper body is aching and my head hurts a bit too.”

“Tell me more about the phlegm,” I said.

“I would just say it’s a little yellow and thickish. The cough is dry, not very productive,” she said.

Colored phlegm or mucus is an indicator of infection. Since she said she was coughing it up and felt that the issue was in her lungs, the jar of Usnea lichen tincture in my closet came to mind. Another herbalist I know used it successfully to heal his father of pneumonia. Usnea is a lung medicine. Its use as a respiratory antibiotic has been documented since 1600 B.C. It has also been shown to be more effective than penicillin at combating tuberculosis in studies.

“I have some herbs that could be helpful,” I told her, and she invited me to bring them over.

I brought her the Usnea tincture along with a medicinal herb tea I blended for her made of rosemary (an antiviral), lemon balm (antiviral and mild anti-spasmodic), mullein (soothes the lungs and is an expectorant), and stinging nettle (nutritious and helps the body handle stress). I suggested that she drink the tea 4 to 5 times per day and squeeze two medicine droppers full of the tincture into each cup.

“I predict you will make a full recovery within two days,” I told her.

A week went by before we happened to talk again. She sent me a Facebook message. It said:

“Hi darling! Guess what! The herbs worked magically in 1-2 days!”

Usnea is abundant and easy to wildcraft both in the Pacific Northwest as well as all over the world. To learn how to identify it and how to make medicine with it, check out this previous blog post I wrote about it here.

Join me for an affordable, hands-on introduction to making your own herbal medicine at home from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, March 10, at HARP, 1611 SE Bybee, Portland. We will make infusions, decoctions, tinctures, infused oils and salves, and more. $40, advance registration required. Sign up here.

Other upcoming classes:
* Guided meditation to meet Hawthorn & Yarrow, plant spirits who help us with boundaries, this Thursday, Feb. 7, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
* Herbal Smoking Blends workshop! Learn how to make them and leave with your own custom blend. Thursday, Feb. 14, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
* Guided meditation to meet Western Red Cedar, a plant spirit who helps with protection and grounding, on Thursday Feb. 21, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

11 thoughts on “How a Lichen Saved the Day

  1. Usnea is all over the forest here in southern Appalachia. I’ll have to try a tincture. Would the winter growth be okay or would it be helpful to wait until spring? Such a more temperate climate here in NC than IL where I’m from. Thanks for sharing!

    • Great question, maybe someone reading this has the answer — me, I don’t know enough about how seasons affect the lichen, so I would harvest now!

  2. Do you happen to know if it grows in SE Arizona? I live in a high desert valley, but there is a line of cottonwood trees growing along the San Pedro River whihc is a mile from my house. I have COPD, so it would definately be a good idea for me to find some and make medicine with it. I have 2 bottle of Everclear just waiting for me to try to make tinctures.


    • Hi Leila, I can’t say I’m too familiar with SE AZ, but according to an info sheet I saw from the US Forest Service, it’s unlikely.

  3. Glad your friend got better, Becky. You recommended anti-viral herbs, and they worked. How did you know the infection was viral and not bacterial? What would you have suggested had it been the latter?

    Also, I don’t think penicillin is used for tuberculosis. Has Usnea been compared to those antibiotics that are being used for TB?

    • Hi Steve! Good questions. Those herbs work against bacteria too — they’re generally anti-microbial, so I knew that either way they’d probably help. I tend to write “anti-viral” instead of “anti-microbial” maybe because I am impressed that they work against viruses when conventional antibiotics do not! 😉

      Penicillin is not widely used now because many kinds of bacteria have adapted to become resistant to it after years of exposure. But usnea lichen has a different mechanism of action. If you do a google scholar search, you can find numerous technical studies showing usnic acid (present in usnea) is effective against TB.

      You could find more information about herbal antibiotics in the books “Herbal Antibiotics” by Stephen Buhner and “Usnea: The Herbal Antibiotic” by Christopher Hobbs.

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