Usnea spp (in my region, generally usnea californica)
Those who will not
slip beneath the still surface
on the well of grief,
turning down through its black water
to the place where we cannot breathe
will never know the source
from which we drink the secret water,
cold and pure,
nor find in the darkness, glimmering,
the small round coins thrown by those
who wished for something else.
– David Whyte
One week ago, my beloved best friend and loyal companion, Liam the Dog, died. The experience was excruciating, and I miss him so much. I know I am not alone—either in my life or in my grief—but grief can feel like a lonely place.
In between the cascade of feelings that have been rolling through this week, I’ve noticed that certain plants bring me comfort. They come to me in dreams, and they appeal to me as I walk in the hills around where I live. I find myself thinking about them, drawn to places where they are, and I feel their medicine in my body and soul. I’m noticing now that many plants have evolved to be in service during the process of grief.
It seems to me that Usnea is the grandfather of grief medicine. Everyone is different, and grief manifests in different ways and for different reasons….but this ancient, wild fellow couldn’t be more comforting or healing. The first time I understood this, I was about halfway through a year-long apprenticeship on plant medicine in the high-desert wilds of New Mexico. I sat down under a pine tree that was draped with Usnea…and burst into tears. The message was: you are not alone. I’m here, with you, and I always have been. And, yes, your grief is real. There is much sadness in the world. Be as sad as you need to be: I can help you hold and heal it.
Medicine for the Body
In the body, Usnea helps defend against many types of bacteria, including Staph (Staphylococcus simulans and S. aureus) and Strep (Streptococcus). For more than 3,000 years in ancient China, and in Egypt and Greece, it was used to treat infections. For at least 1,600 years, Usnic acid extracted from the plant has been used as a potent antibiotic. And unlike modern pharmacological antibiotics, it can effectively kill unwanted pathogens without majorly disrupting healthy gut flora.
Usnea has a special affinity for healing the lungs, where grief is often stored in the body. Its medicine is very effective for tuberculosis, pneumonia, and upper respiratory tract infections—as well as for strep throat, urinary tract infections, and diarrhea.
Medicine for Grief
But grief is an emotion, not a malady. So I’m not trying to “cure” it: emotions are a natural and appropriate response to experience, information we need, and they are never “wrong.” They exist somewhere in between body and spirit, a combination of both.
The medicines of plants can provide comfort during uncomfortable emotions as they work themselves through. Grief medicine—such as Usnea—can help to uncover grief, to validate the experience of grief, and to keep grief from getting stuck, when it really can then manifest into a physical malady or an emotional emergency.
One of my teachers and mentors in the world of plant medicine, Stephen Harrod Buhner, writes beautifully about Usnea. “The Dakota called usnea Chan wiziye,” he says in his book Sacred Plant Medicine. “This has been variously translated as ‘on the north side of the tree’ or ‘Spirit of the north wind,’ from Chan (on a tree) and wiziye (toward the snow and pine trees); the north wind; a legendary white giant of the north.”
In Chinese, the name is songluo, which also refers to the pine tree (song) and the plant’s appearance as a hanging plant (like a vine; luo) reminiscent of a fish-net (also luo).
In my Bay Area region of northern California, I haven’t noticed that Usnea prefers the north side of trees, and it seems to like oak as well as fir and pine. But Usnea definitely feels like a being of the North: of ancestors and teachers, the dark and winter, of old growth forests and the ancient magic of the earth.
Grief is uncomfortable, and my tendency is to rush through it, getting busy and trying to move it through quickly. But grief moves at an ancient pace, rambling in different directions and finding cohort in nooks and crannies I forgot I had. If you let it, Usnea will take this meandering journey with you. It knows the terrain and has travelled it for more than centuries, accompanying ancestors and ancients as grief moved through them, carving new understandings, compassion, and openings in its wake.
Usnea’s wild, hair-like being is easy to identify if you know what you are looking for. Botanically, it is a lichen: a symbiotic integration of a fungus with an algae. It seems no accident that it has co-evolved with trees—the “lung” system of our planet. But Usnea is not a sign of sick or dying trees, and it does not harm the trees. If anything, it is a sign of clean air: most lichens, including Usnea, are very sensitive to air pollution and don’t thrive in places where the air is not clean. Just as in our human bodies, Usnea medicine helps a tree ward off fungal infections and invasive insects. It encourages the presence of animals by offering food or material they can use for camouflage or nest building.
To positively identify Usnea, look for a spongy lichen that, especially when wet, stretches when you gently pull on it. A thin, elastic-like cord sits inside the spongier outside layer. If you don’t see this arrangement, with a white cord inside, it is another species of lichen, not Usnea.
Collecting and Making Usnea Medicine
When collecting Usnea, remember that you are building a relationship with this new friend. Respect is so important. Please know that all lichen—including Usnea—is very slow growing. One source reported that it takes an average of at least three years for Usnea to grow one inch. Understanding that, use just what you need, knowing that this lichen-friend is generously giving of itself for your very own healing.
Usnea’s many constituents need both water and alcohol to dissolve. For medicinal use, when working with stubborn bacteria, purchase a good quality tincture…or learn to make one yourself (even better). Stephen Buhner recommended experimenting with soaking the chopped usnea in hot water first to gather the water-soluble constituents, cooling, and then pouring in the appropriate amount of tincture alcohol to gather the alcohol-soluble constituents. I have made the tincture this way and it seems very potent.
However, when I have used Usnea as a medicine for emotional or spiritual healing, a milder application is what I am drawn to. The idea is to allow Usnea to infiltrate your consciousness and steep into the places where your spirit and psyche live. Place Usnea on your altar. Have some next to your bed, or next to your door, or anywhere you will see it often. To make a tea, chop the plant and steep it in boiling water for 3-10 minutes, or even simmer it for up to 10 minutes. Drink the strained liquid as a tea or pour into a bath and soak. As with everything in life, don’t overdo it. Grief, like Usnea, moves slowly.