One of my favorites, Usnea ssp. is a lichen that is revered for its antibacterial properties and its ability to clear multiple types of infection. Since it’s classified as a lichen, it’s not technically a plant or herb, but is a half algae and half fungus organism (loosely speaking). Look for it growing on a variety of trees, especially hardwoods and fruits. If I could have only 3 or 4 medicinals, Usnea would be one of them. Its broad use for treating urinary tract infections, tooth, gum and mouth/throat infections (thrush, strep, etc.) makes it indispensable. Research has found it to be very effective against MRSA and other antibiotic resistant microbials, though luckily we haven’t had to use it that way yet. Identify it by its year-round grayish-green appearance and the stretchy white filament inside each tendril. Gently pull on one of the tendrils and you will find that it’s very elastic-like with the unmistakable solid white core inside. Two of the easiest medicinal preparations of Usnea ssp. are infusions and tinctures. Since Usnea is not completely water soluble in an infusion (the case with many “woodier” plants) first place it in enough 100 proof alcohol to cover it, crush it slightly to help it along, and let it sit for about 30 minutes. Then make your infusion, alcohol and all, just like normal. This can be used as a direct wound wash or to soak a compress in for treating boils or infected bug bites, as a gargle for thrush, strep or infected teeth, or consumed like a tea in infusion form in 8 oz. portions 3-4 times daily for UTIs, respiratory infections, strep and other bacterial infections. Making it into a tincture gives it a longer shelf life vs. that of an infusion and the tincture can be used in many of the same ways with just a few adaptations which I’ll cover in a later article. I’m also a big proponent of using the plant matter that you strain out of your infusion or tincture. Use it as a poultice or as part of the bandaging on the wound or infected area. It’s preferable to use the plant matter strained from an infusion when doing this on an open wound as plant matter from tincture will sting because of the alcohol. Because there is only a tiny amount of alcohol used in the infusion it usually isn’t enough to cause any discomfort.
Usnea is easily gathered after a storm and a walk through the woods will likely reveal lots of it lying on the ground. This is usually the only way we harvest Usnea so that what is still growing on the trees doesn’t get depleted. It has such a dry nature that you can even pop it directly into a lidded mason jar without tincturing or infusing and it will hold just fine until you need it. As if the medicinal properties weren’t impressive enough, Usnea is also extremely high in carbohydrates and makes an excellent (although not particularly tasty) survival food in limited portions if you find yourself lost in the woods and in need of nourishment.
Like all native plant medicines, be conscientious with its use when treating others and recognize those occasions where utilizing modern medicine may be a better choice. The reasons to opt for the modern route are many and being open to both avenues makes us no less of an herbalist, but instead makes us better healers.
For more on Usnea, check out the book Herbal Antibiotics, 2nd Edition: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-resistant Bacteria – by Stephen Buhner.