Usnea, a Powerful Medicinal Friend
It is almost the middle of April and I have finally lost most of the snow and ice that lingers on the north face of this land. Many complain of the cold but April has consistently been a capricious month, and I find this weather reassuring, imagining that climate change is not underway even though I know better. Under the pines and spruce I have discovered large clumps of Usnea everywhere I wander – more than I have ever seen any other year. I’m not sure why this seems to be the case. Is there some vulnerability that is affecting the organism’s ability to attach itself securely to branches? I am full of unanswered questions… We have, of course, had harsh winter winds but no more than usual, and because the ground is still so moist in most places, Usnea has a luminous sage green cast to it. When I pick up a clump it feels soft and sponge –like to the touch. A few days ago I made a mosaic out of all the different lichens I collected, just for fun…
Two days of rain and one morning of crisped northwest wind and today I discover all lichens are suddenly receding from view replaced by incandescent mosses. This amazing spring transition occurred in two days! The best lichen gathering season is almost over, but if the discerning eye peers into spruce and pine, Usnea can be found nestled amongst high branches. Look below; there are still plenty of clumps on the ground.
When I first came here I felI in love with a large ‘dying spruce’ that dripped Usnea from every branch. I had no idea then, that almost forty years later, that same tree would still be standing photosynthesizing away with Usnea hugging its branches, casting threadlike tendrils in every direction. I find this lichen beautiful, each clump moving with its delicate thread like fingers…All are unique. Yesterday while meandering through thick mist acclaimed author and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams words suddenly materialized out of thin air as I picked up yet another piece of this lichen. “Beauty is not a luxury. It is a strategy for survival”.
Usnea seems to gravitate to fruit trees and in the upper branches of some of mine Usnea grows profusely. It can also be found on the bark of a few hardwood trees, but if you want to gather some slip into a pine forest if you can find one that has been left alone.
Remember, that like all other lichens, Usnea is composed of two organisms and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two – fungus and alga. Usnea can be easily identified by gently pulling the strands in two. As the alga separates it reveals a white thread (the fungus) in the middle and this thread is stretchy. Usnea is especially common around here probably because it loves a lot of moisture. The old spruce with her sage robe of Usnea is growing right next to the brook, and I have a lot of other lowland areas on this property. The best time to collect Usnea is on wet gray days in March or April because that’s when Usnea shines. One morning of sun and wind turns Usnea (like other lichens) brittle and dull. This shriveling protects the algae from desiccation, so that when conditions are right the organism will photosynthesize again. It is amazing to me how much harder it was for me to see any lichen on this windy sunny morning.
This astonishing organism is quite common in some areas in the US and in Europe but as mentioned before it needs moisture, so foraging in a desert will probably not yield results. Not much research has been done on this lichen to find out how sensitive it is to air pollution. An Indigenous friend of mine in Northern New Mexico found some in Ponderora pines probably growing at a high elevation.
Usnea contains potent antibiotics that can be used in an emergency to stem the flow of blood from a wound. It also has antiviral properties. Useful to know if you spend time in the forest. Usnea is easily tinctured to create a powerful immune system tonic, or one that targets respiratory problems – bronchitis, strep throat, colds and flu in particular. If you suffer from sinus infections like I do it can be especially helpful. Anyone with a depressed immune system will find this organism a useful support.
Because a broken foot left me unable to traverse the paths in my woods this winter I am especially grateful for the changing season. I had planned to gather Usnea late this winter and couldn’t do so until recently, when the ice finally receded. As I saw today, from now on all lichens are going to become harder to see as the greening season approaches. If you wild craft this lichen please do so responsibly. This morning I brought home a whole branch that was covered with Usnea. There are plenty of tree limbs lying on the ground ripe for foraging should that be your inclination.