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Usnea cavernosa
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Fungi
Division: Ascomycota
Class: Lecanoromycetes
Order: Lecanorales
Family: Parmeliaceae
Genus: Usnea
Dill. ex. Adans. (1763)
Type species
Usnea florida
(L.) F.H.Wigg. (1780)

See text


Usnea is a genus of mostly pale grayish-green fruticose lichens that grow like leafless mini-shrubs or tassels anchored on bark or twigs.[2]: 203  The genus is in the family Parmeliaceae. It grows all over the world. Members of the genus are commonly called old man's beard, beard lichen, or beard moss.[2]: 203 

Members of the genus are similar to those of the genus Alectoria.[2]: 148  A distinguishing test is that the branches of Usnea are somewhat elastic, but the branches of Alectoria snap cleanly off.[2]: 148 


The genus Usnea was circumscribed by Michel Adanson in 1763.[3] He used the name designated by Johann Jacob Dillenius, whose earlier published description did not meet the rules of valid publication as established by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. However, he did not specify a type specimen; the species Usnea florida, moved to the genus by Friedrich Heinrich Wiggers in 1780, has been designated as the lectotype.[4] Since the establishment of the genus, hundreds of Usnea species have been described. A three-volume series by Józef Motyka published in 1936 and 1947 listed 451 species.[5] By 2006, the genus contained more than 600 species, which made it one of the largest genera within the family Parmeliaceae.[6] However, many former species are now regarded as morphological varieties and adaptations to local circumstances. The number of recognized species in Finland has decreased for this reason, for example, dropping from 34 in 1951 to 25 in 1963 and only 12 in 2000.[7] In addition, some former Usnea species have been moved to other genera; for instance, Usnea longissima was renamed Dolichousnea longissima in 2004.[8] By 2022, the overall number of species assigned to the genus had dropped to 355.[9]

The name Usnea is probably derived from the Arabic word Ushnah, meaning moss or lichen, though it may also mean "rope-like".[10][11] Based on a fossil Usnea found in Baltic amber, the genus is known to date back to at least the late Eocene, about 34 million years ago.[12]


Usnea lichens are fruticose. Structurally they are shrubby, often with many branches, and can be erect or pendent.[11] Some trailing species can grow to considerable size; strands of Usnea longissima, for example, may exceed 3 meters (9.8 ft) in length.[13] Colours vary depending on the species, from straw-coloured, yellow-green or pale green through green or greyish-green to reddish or variegated red and green.[14] Unlike other similar-looking fruticose lichens, species in this genus have an elastic chord or axis running through the middle of the thallus that can be revealed by gently pulling a filament apart from either end.[15]

Usnea looks very similar to the plant Spanish moss, so much so that the latter's Latin name is derived from it (Tillandsia usneoides, the 'Usnea-like Tillandsia').

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Usnea lichens are widely distributed in both the northern and southern hemisphere, in both temperate and tropical regions.[14]

They appear in areas with low levels of air pollution. They can often be found on the ground in areas with where trees or branches have recently been cut, such as orchards (after pruning) and active logging areas.[16]


Usnea lichens reproduce via vegetative means through fragmentation, asexual means through soredia, or sexual means through ascogonium and spermatogonium.[17] The growth rate of lichens in nature is slow, but can be increased in laboratory conditions.[18]

Like other lichens, Usnea often grows on sick or dying trees due to the pre-existing loss of canopy leaves, allowing for greater photosynthesis by the lichen's algae; this leads some gardeners to mistakenly blame the lichen for the tree's leaf loss and illness.[19]

Usnea is very sensitive to air pollution, especially sulfur dioxide.[20] Under poor growing conditions, such as areas high in pollution, 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. It can sometimes be used as a bioindicator, because it tends to only grow in those regions where the air is clean,[21] and of high quality.


By humans[edit]

Traditional medicines[edit]

According to Paul Bergner, Author of Medical Herbalism, "the usnic acid in Usnea is effective against gram positive bacteria such as Streptococcus and Staphylococcus, making Usnea a valuable addition to herbal formulas for sore throats and skin infections. It is also effective against a bacterium that commonly causes pneumonia."[22]

Bolivian traditional healers called the Kallawaya use Kaka sunka in decoction to cure lung problems. The lichen is macerated in alcohol and rubbed onto the body of those suffering from "nervous fragility".[16]

Some believe that Usnea, in high concentrations, could possess some toxicity.[23] The National Toxicology Program evaluated the issue,[24] undertaking research involved feeding male and female rats and mice ground Usnea lichens containing usnic acid for three months at various concentrations. Rats suffered severe toxicity, with significant liver damage observed at various concentrations, while mice experienced liver toxicity, ovarian atrophy, and changes in reproductive cycles at higher doses. Additionally, both species showed weight loss at elevated exposure levels, and mice exhibited potential genetic damage after two weeks at high concentrations. A safe exposure level was established at 60 parts per million, below which no adverse effects were observed.[25]


Usnea species have been used to create yellow, orange, green, blue, and purple dyes for textiles.[26][27] This wide variety of possible colors can be achieved due to variations in chemical composition depending on the species, locality, and race of a particular specimen. Specifically, Usnea can contain thamnolic, squamatic, barbatic, salazinic, and alectorialic acids, all of which can affect dye color.[16]

Many indigenous peoples of Central and South America, including the Tarahumura and Mapuche people, have a history of dyeing with Usnea, generally to obtain orange and brown hues. The Tarahumura use them to dye wool blankets in brown and russet hues, and the Mapuche have used Usnea florida to obtain orange. There is also anthropological evidence that Usnea cocca sonca was historically used for dyeing in Peru, and a lichen called cuaxapaxtle was used near Mexico City.[16]


Usnea barbata has been used in cosmetic production for its antimicrobial and antifungal properties as a preservative and deodorant.[28]


When dry, Usnea lichens are flammable and can be used as a fire starter.[29]


Some Usnea species have been used as food sources during times of scarcity. For example, people in Bosnia and Herzegovina ate Usnea barbata during the Bosnian War, particularly in the winter, when other plant material was not readily available.[30] They ground it into powdery "flour" to make bread or ate it as mush.[31]

By other organisms[edit]

The northern parula, a species of New World warbler which breeds in North America, uses Usnea lichens in the construction of its nest in some parts of its range. Where these lichens have declined due to air pollution, the bird has also vanished as a breeding species.[32]


Usnea amblyoclada
Usnea antarctica
Usnea ceratina
Usnea hirta
Usnea intermedia
Usnea scabrata
Usnea subscabrosa


  1. ^ Species Fungorum.
  2. ^ a b c d Field Guide to California Lichens, Stephen Sharnoff, Yale University Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-300-19500-2
  3. ^ Adanson 1763, p. 616.
  4. ^ Index Fungorum.
  5. ^ Motyka 1936.
  6. ^ Wirtz et al. 2006.
  7. ^ Halonen 2000, p. 13.
  8. ^ Articus 2004, p. 932.
  9. ^ Wijayawardene et al. 2022, p. 151.
  10. ^ Yavuz & Çobanoğlu 2010, p. 4.
  11. ^ a b Dobson 2011, p. 445.
  12. ^ Kaasalainen, Rikkinen & Schmidt 2020, p. 319.
  13. ^ Brodo, Sharnoff & Sharnoff 2001, p. 11.
  14. ^ a b McCarthy & Mallett 2004, p. 80.
  15. ^ Brodo, Irwin M.; Sylvia Duran Sharnoff; Stephen Sharnoff; Canadian Museum of Nature (2001). Lichens of North America. Yale University Press. pp. 709–710. ISBN 9780300082494. Retrieved 6 December 2012.
  16. ^ a b c d Cardon, Dominique (2007). Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science. Technical advisors: Jo Kirby and Catherine Higgitt. London: Archetype Publications. pp. 524–525. ISBN 978-1-904982-00-5.
  17. ^ Marand, Sajan (5 January 2010). "Usnea". A Text Book of Botany: Vol. III. Calicut University. pp. 87–90. Retrieved 6 December 2012.
  18. ^ "Optimization of Culture Conditions for Lichen Usnea ghattensis G. Awasthi to Increase Biomass and Antioxidant Metabolite Production". Food Technol. Biotechnol. 47 (1): 7–12. 2009. ISSN 1330-9862.
  19. ^ Brodo, Irwin M.; Sylvia Duran Sharnoff; Stephen Sharnoff; Canadian Museum of Nature (2001). Lichens of North America. Yale University Press. pp. 57–58. ISBN 9780300082494. Retrieved 6 December 2012.
  20. ^ Batty, Lesley C.; Hallberg, Kevin B., eds. (2010). Ecology of Industrial Pollution. Ecological Reviews. Cambridge University Press. p. 49. ISBN 9780521514460. Retrieved 4 December 2012. Usnea spp., at one time widespread and luxuriant, almost entirely disappeared from a major area of England and Wales covering at least 68 000 km² and at least 6 000 km² of lowland Scotland, mainly as a result of the increase in atmospheric pollution.
  21. ^ "Usnea Lichens". www.lichens.net. Retrieved 2018-04-06.
  22. ^ "Lymphatic and antibiotic herbs".
  23. ^ Jellin, JM; Gregory P.; Batz F.; Hitchens, K.; et al. (2000). "USNEA". Pharmacist's Letter/Prescriber's Letter Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (3rd ed.). Stockton, CA: Therapeutic Research Facility. pp. 1048–1049. ISBN 0967613647. Adverse reactions are uncommon in appropriate amounts. Poisoning can be possible, although signs of poisoning have not yet been described.
  24. ^ "Testing Status: Usnea lichen 09063". Testing Status of Agents at NTP. National Toxicology Program. Retrieved 5 December 2012.
  25. ^ National Toxicology Program (NTP) (2022). NTP technical report on the toxicity studies of Usnea lichens containing (+/−)-usnic acid (CASRN 125-46-2) administered in feed to F344/N Nctr rats and B6C3F1/Nctr mice (Report). 105. Research Triangle Park, NC: National Toxicology Program. doi:10.22427/NTP-TOX-105. PMC 9638892.
  26. ^ Bolton 1991, p. 27.
  27. ^ Casselman 2001, pp. 33, 36.
  28. ^ Ash, Michael; Irene Ash (2004). "Lichen (Usnea barbata) extract". Handbook of Preservatives. Synapse Info Resources. p. 437. ISBN 9781890595661. Retrieved 6 December 2012.
  29. ^ Woodland Trust.
  30. ^ Redzic, Barudanovic & Pilipovic 2010, p. 182.
  31. ^ Redzic, Barudanovic & Pilipovic 2010, p. 180.
  32. ^ DeGraaf & Yamasaki 2001, p. 219.
  33. ^ Fryday, Alan M.; Øvstedal, Dag O. (2012). "New species, combinations and records of lichenized fungi from the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas)". The Lichenologist. 44 (4): 483–500. doi:10.1017/s0024282912000163. S2CID 87490768.