In First Nation’s medicine wheel Usnea sits in the North, the place of wisdom. I remember my first taste of old man’s beard tincture. I felt I was sipping ancient green wisdom. The tincture filled me the humble quiet sense of awe, I feel standing amongst venerable trees in old growth forest with usnea dripping from the trees. The forest pregnant with the silence and mystery of life. No plant (usnea is not really a plant) gives meaning to the interdependence of life like usnea. 

Usnea is a symbiotic relationship between algae, the green/grey outer surface,and fungi, the inner the white elastic like substance.  All over the world Usnea grows and all over the world it is used to treat cancer, wounds, and lung infections. Usnea’s grey green algae is strongly antibacterial. The inner fungi, the thallus, is immune-modulating.

It was once thought that Usnea was a plant parasite because it prefers to grows on trees where the bark is damaged. It was believed that Usnea drew nutrients from the tree. We are now wiser.

Usnea acts as medicine wherever it perches on the damaged skin of a tree. Usnea protects the tree from invading plant pathogens. Usnea takes nothing from the tree.

How does Usnea eat? The algae absorbs energy from the sun and feeds to the inner fungi. The fungi, catching minerals and moisture from the air, makes it own food and feeds it to the algae. Usnea is a self sustaining. Usnea’s dependence on the air for its source of nutrient, it is very sensitive to air pollution. If the air is thick with pollution Usnea grows slowly, if it grows at all. In clean air, usnea hangs from trees like an old man’s beard. In northern California, Usnea is used to track levels of air polluntion in old growth forests.

This strange combination of algae and fungi, that care for trees, the lungs of the planet, inform us about the quality of air, and help us heal our own lung deficiencies, is the sublime dance of interdependence.

It is the lack of understand of the interdependence between all living things and the mutually supportive relationships found in nature that is the source of the great sorrow infusing our world. Believing life is about survival of the fittest and its a dog eat dog world (although I have never seen a dog eat another) keep hearts guarded and kindness on a leash. Usnea’s story inspires trust and releases sorrow’s isolation. 

Old Man’s Beard (Usnea spp.)

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