Usnea is the generic and scientific name for several species of lichen in the family Parmeliaceae, that generally grow hanging from tree branches, resembling grey or greenish hair. It is sometimes referred to commonly as Old Man's Beard, Beard Lichen, or Treemoss. Usnea looks very similar to Spanish moss, so much so that the latter plant's Latin name is derived from it (Tillandsia usneoides, the 'Usnea-like Tillandsia').
Many species have been described. A monography by Józef Motyka from 1947 distinguished 451 species. Many of these are now regarded as morphological varieties and adaptations to local circumstances. The taxonomic categorization of many members of this genus remains uncertain. The number of recognized species in Finland is decreasing for this reason, from 34 in 1951 to 25 in 1963 and only 12 in 2000. It is now noted as including more than 600 species and being one of the largest genera within the Parmeliaceae.(Ref. Wirtz, N. et al 2006.)
Usnea is very sensitive to air pollution, especially sulfur dioxide. Under bad conditions they may grow no larger than a few millimetres, if they survive at all. Where the air is unpolluted, they can grow to 10-20 cm long.
Usnea has been used medicinally for at least 1000 years. Usnic acid (C18H16O7), a potent antibiotic and antifungal agent is found in most species. This, combined with the hairlike structure of the lichen, means that Usnea lent itself well to treating surface wounds when sterile gauze and modern antibiotics were unavailable. It is also edible and high in vitamin C.
This lichen, promoted to induce weight loss via increase in metabolic rate, has been the topic of an FDA warning in the USA, due to hepatotoxicity in a product called Lipokinetix. Lipokinetix also contained PPA, caffeine, yohimbine and diiodothyronine. There is no scientific information on the safety or efficacy of oral use of Usnea.
Usnea lichen is important to note because it has life-saving potential. Native Americans employed it as a compress to severe battle wounds to prevent infection and gangrene, and it was also taken internally to fight infections. Usnea contains potent antibiotics which can halt infection and are broad spectrum and effective against all gram-positive and tuberculosis bacterial species. Usnea has several unique characteristics which make its identification easy if stranded in the wilderness far from a hospital. Usnea lichens can be easily identified by pulling back the outer sheath on the main stem. Usnea lichens have an elastic pure white chord running through the center of the main stem. Lichen species which resemble Usnea do not have this white cord, and appear grey-green throughout. Usnea lichens do not change color throughout the growing season as do lichen species which closely resemble Usnea.
Some of the species of Usnea include:
Effects of water extract of Usnea longissima on antioxidant enzyme activity and mucosal damage caused by indomethacin in rats.
Sep 01, 2005; Abstract In this study, the antiulcerogenic effect of a water extract obtained from the lichen species Usnea longissima...
Ask Dr. Nan.(potassium supplements while on blood pressure medication)(usnea barbata for lung strength)(Longevinex resveratrol supplement)(Column)
Feb 01, 2005; Q: You've said that Usnea barbata is an herb that strengthens the lungs, but you don't say how long to take it. Can you...
Intercalary growth causes geometric length expansion in Methuselah's beard lichen (Usnea longissima).(NOTE)(Report)
Oct 01, 2008; Introduction Lichens are symbiotic associations of a fungus and a photosynthetic partner: a green alga, a cyanobacterium, or...