U – Materia Medica: Usnea barbata (PBP week 42)

I’ve been having some trouble coming up with a second “U” post for the Pagan Blog Project.  Its week 42, so a post titled “Life, the Universe, and Everything” was very tempting, but I got stuck after the title.  (Besides, I’ve already seen one Douglas Adams reference on the PBP page and its not even Friday.  Given the fondness many pagans seem to have for Adams, I doubt it will be the last.)

So I decided this might be a good time to talk some herbs.  I studied medicinal herbalism for a year under the incredibly gifted Kita Centella, owner of Chakra 4 Herb and Tea House in Phoenix, AZ.  Since then, I have continued my studies independently – with a focus on magic and ethnobotany.  I am not a professional or licensed herbalist, but I have learned a few things worth sharing and have managed not to poison any friends or family members who come to me for advice.

FDA disclaimer:  Nothing I write here is intended to diagnose or treat an illness.  I am sharing my own experiences and that of others, not making recommendations.  Please use your discretion as to what you choose to do with this information.

Enough with the preamble.  This is Usnea barbata:

Also known as Old Man’s Beard or Bearded Lichen, it is common to many forested areas in North America.  (Other species of Usnea grow worldwide.)  One does not need to spend much time in the redwood forests where I grew up before coming across it.

Usnea is very sensitive to air pollution.  Because of this when found in city parks it is very stunted; the further it is from civilization, the more it thrives.  If you want to know the air quality in your area, look for the usnea.

As with any lichen (or really anything), you want to be sure of your identification before using.  Usnea is a light greenish grey in color.  (Avoid brightly colored lichens as a general rule.)  It grows on trees, looking very similar to Spanish Moss.  It can also be found loose on the ground, especially after a wind storm.  For a positive ID, remove the outer sheath to reveal a white inner cord.  It will look a bit like a wire with insulation partially removed.

My grandfather first introduced me to this “plant.”  He told me that if I should ever get hurt in the woods, I should apply bearded lichen to the wound to stop the bleeding and prevent infection.  Further research backs him up – usnea has astringent properties that would slow bleeding and anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties which would cover any kind of infection.  It has been used to treat many things, from colds and athlete’s foot to herpes and chronic fatigue.  Because it is also an immunostimulant, it may be useful as part of a regimen for AIDS.

Dosage:  Apply entire plant directly to skin as a poultice for first aid or skin fungus.  An herbal wash (basically a very strong infusion) can be used externally if a poultice is not practical.  Internally, usnea can be taken in tincture or pill form, but I have found an infusion is best – up to 3 cups of tea a day.  One of it’s constituents, usnic acid, can be toxic but it is not easily absorbed by the body.  It is also not water soluble, so if you have any concerns an in infusion should set them at ease.  It is best to avoid taking usnea internally if you are pregnant or breast feeding.

Usnea also can be used as a fabric dye, creating a lovely yellow color.

Magically, usnea has strong affiliations with the element of air, but also with old age.  For me, it evokes a sense of the deep, primeval forest.  Of otherness, something not quite of the world I live in.  I have not found any established astrological attributions, but it’s association with age and it’s cool energy speak to me of Saturn.

Web MD entry on Usnea

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