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Usnea australis
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Fungi
Division: Ascomycota
Class: Lecanoromycetes
Order: Lecanorales
Family: Parmeliaceae
Genus: Usnea

See text.

  Usnea is the generic and scientific name for several species of lichen in the family Parmeliaceae, that generally grow hanging from tree branches, resembling grey or greenish hair. It is sometimes referred to commonly as Old Man's Beard, Beard Lichen, or Treemoss. Usnea looks very similar to Spanish moss, so much so that the latter plant's Latin name is derived from it (Tillandsia usneoides, the 'Usnea-like Tillandsia').

Usnea grows all over the world. Like other lichens it is a symbiosis of a fungus and an alga. The fungus belongs to the division Ascomycota, while the alga is a member of the division Chlorophyta.

Many species have been described. A monography by Józef Motyka from 1947 distinguished 451 species. Many of these are now regarded as morphological varieties and adaptations to local circumstances. The taxonomic categorization of many members of this genus remains uncertain. The number of recognized species in Finland is decreasing for this reason, from 34 in 1951 to 25 in 1963 and only 12 in 2000. It is now noted as including more than 600 species and being one of the largest genera within the Parmeliaceae.(Ref. Wirtz, N. et al 2006.)

Usnea is very sensitive to air pollution, especially sulfur dioxide. Under bad conditions 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.

Usnea has been used medicinally for at least 1000 years. Usnic acid (C18H16O7), a potent antibiotic and antifungal agent is found in most species. This, combined with the hairlike structure of the lichen, means that Usnea lent itself well to treating surface wounds when sterile gauze and modern antibiotics were unavailable. It is also edible and high in vitamin C.

This lichen, promoted to induce weight loss via increase in metabolic rate, has been the topic of an FDA warning in the USA, due to hepatotoxicity in a product called Lipokinetix. Lipokinetix also contained PPA, caffeine, yohimbine and diiodothyronine. There is no scientific information on the safety or efficacy of oral use of Usnea.


  Some of the species of Usnea include:

  • Usnea barbata
  • Usnea dasypoga
  • Usnea florida
  • Usnea hirta
  • Usnea longissima
  • Usnea rubicunda
  • Usnea rubiginea
  • Usnea subfloridana


Kirtz, N., Printzen, C., Sancho, L.G. and Lumbsch, H.T. 2006. The phylogeny and classification of Neuropogon and Usnea (Parmeliaceae, Ascomycota) revisited. Taxon 55(2):367 - 376.

FDA letter to Health Care Professionals on Hazardous Dietary Supplement Lipokinetix, 2001-11-01

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Usnea". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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