Usnea spp

Common name:  old man’s beard

Scientific name: Usnea spp.

Native American Names: Chan wiziye (meaning “on the north side of the tree” or “Spirit of the north wind”, Dakota tribe) [1]

Fungi family: Parmeliaceae

Usnea longissima

Usnea longissima

Usnea wirthii

Usnea wirthii









Description:  Usnea spp. is a lichen, composed of algae and fungus functioning together in symbiosis, growing epiphytically on a host tree . Usnea wirthii  and Usnea longissima are the two most common species in the Northwest. Usnea wirthii is pale yellowish-green in color, often with red spots, with a white central cord, branched and shrub-like shape, and 2-4 cm long. Usnea longissima is a 15-35 cm hanging lichen with a white central unbranched, or sparsely branched, strand. [2]


Habitat and Range: Usnea spp. is found worldwide, ranging from sea-level to sub-alpine. Usnea wirthii is found frequently on conifer trees in open lowland forests and can specifically be found on white oak trees in Eugene, as seen in the rough field sketches on the following page. Usnea longissima is best developed growing over trees and shrubs of old-growth forests.[3]

Historical and Contemporary Uses

Usnea spp. is and was used medicinally worldwide by a variety of cultures. In the Pacific Northwest the fibers of Usnea longissima were used by the Haida, an indigenous nation of the Pacific Northwest Coast, to strain impurities from hot pitch before the pitch was used as medicine. [2] Usnea spp. is also used in the Canary Islands as a general wound healer, in Italy as a eupeptic, an antiseptic in Argentina, an antibacterial agent in Saudi Arabia, an antitumor agent in Chile and as an abscess and dye by North American tribes.[1] Usnea spp. can be used to create a topical medicine by smashing the whole lichen into a powder or applying the plant whole to treat fungal and bacterial skin infections and skin burns. Usnea spp. can also be used to treat internal health problems, commonly those associated with the respiratory system. The entire lichen is tinctured in alcohol, consumed whole, or infused as a tea to treat infections, colds, flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, and sinus infections. [1]

[1] Stephen Harrod Buhner, Brook Medicine Eagle. Sacred plant medicine: the wisdom in Native American herbalism. Inner Traditions/ Bear & Co, 2006.

[2]  Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Lone Pine Publishing, 2004.

[3] Chanchal Cabrera MSc, FNIMH, AHG. A Review of Some Medicinal Plants of the Pacific Northwest. 2006. (Images: U.S. Forest Service)