Updated: Apr 20, 2019
Last week I was reminiscing about the days when Washington winters were wetter. Today I struggled thru over a foot of snow while I searched for a medicinal plant that wasn’t covered on my property. We basically never see weather change direction this fast at sea level, this weekend has been one for the books.
The boys and I have been having a blast. T has turned into a big boy overnight and is shoveling the driveway on his own accord and spending hour after hour outside. Ev is making it happen but was slow to warm up to the snow, it kept getting stuck in his pants and he was less than impressed. He figured out how to shake it out and is now sledding for hours too. O thinks life works best from inside, watching from the big window as the “boys” slide down the hill outside, he is happy to sled with me though. I am a big kid myself and have spent almost as much time sledding as they have. Lucy loo has been my companion on many snowy walks the last few days. I haven’t seen snow like this in Western Washington in 11 years. Soooo we aren’t exactly pros but we are figuring it out.
As I wandered thru my personal winter wonderland today I took pictures of the medicinal plants I was able to see. Hawthorn is still hanging on, rosehips are out, and of course there are the trees: Madrona, Cedar, Dogwood, Douglas Fir, Hemlock, but I’ll get to those later. The medicine I ran into most readily today was Usnea. AKA old man’s beard.
Usnea is another lichen, slow growing, sensitive to environment, loves old growth trees, and due to the loss of healthy natural forests and polluted air, Usnea, and all lichens, are suffering a population decline.
Lichens, a marriage of alga and fungi, they are unique. Usnea lives on trees, many lichens live on rocks. In Asia, lichens are referred to as “the ear of the stone,” likely because lichens formed on rocks in a post-glacial world before soil was hospitable to life, they are an elder among the green things. If lichens are ears of the stone then what does this mean for Usnea? Is she the ear of the trees, specifically the old ones? We now know that the network of communication in the forest is sophisticated and fungi plays a critical role. I’d like to think Usnea holds her space.
You know you have Usnea when you gently pull on both ends of a moist strand and a (most often white) elastic core is revealed. Be sure to check for this as the look-a-like Alectoria lichen is not a medicinal plant traditionally.
Once you have identified Usnea you can first, hold it up to your chin, make an old man’s beard, namesake replicated, check. As for medicinal use it is quite valuable, the core is rich in immune stimulating polysaccarides, the outer cortex has antiviral and antibacterial properties, and it is both a cooling and drying plant. The constituents are most soluble in alcohol so a tincture preparation is necessary to get the medicine out of this plant.
The nature of Usnea’s medicine make it ideal for use in a hot/wet respiratory infection, also commonly used for urinary and reproductive tract infections. Traditionally given for pneumonia, strep, herpes, and Epstein-Barr virus, it is a most useful ally.
Creating an Usnea tincture requires a fair amount of knowledge and process. I don’t in any way recommend that you take this on yourself. Not only is Usnea slow growing and populations of it decreasing, but creating a strong medicine out of it is a process best taken on by experienced medicine makers as it requires a heat component, and an alcohol component.
My point with this post, and the others in this series is not for you to go out and create your own medicine but to build awareness about the ways in which Mother Nature is providing for us in the seemingly mundane parts of our life. Like the little beard looking strands dangling from the tree you just wandered by. So there you go, there is more to what is around you than meets the eye. A comforting thought in my opinion and I hope in yours too.
Hopefully I will have a few plants to talk about next week that aren’t covered in snow.
Kloos, Scott. Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants (c)2017
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass (c) 2013
Lust, John. The Herb Book (c)2009