Monday, August 27, 2007

All About Lichen

Above Picture Ella inspecting Lichen
Lichen means "leprous" in Greek, the plant was named by Dioscorides he thought it resembled the skin of people with leprosy. I personally like the name "old man's beard"
The structure and origin of these plants was a mystery to botanists for years. In 16th century Europe they thought the lichens were secretions of soil, rocks and trees. In the 19thg century some experts thought lichens were composed of air and or water, others thought they found an example of spontaneous generation.
Now it has been found that lichen are a combination of an alga and a fungus. In this mutually beneficial partnership the alga, since it is green, can utilize sunlight and carbon dioxide to make food; the fungus holds water and provides structure.
The spoors of algae and fungi are in the air all the time, when they land together in a place they like a lichen is formed. They tend to grow in places where the algae and the fungi could not survive alone.
Lichens are very adaptable to becoming dormant during dry periods and at low temperatures, they can remain this way for years, reviving when the conditions improve. They grow very slowly and if left alone can reach an incredible 2000 years old!
They like to grow on tree trunks. They are not parasites, they do not penetrate the bark of the tree. Often Lichen grows on the North side of a tree, this was an advantage to travelers, especially traveling in the woods at night.
Food Uses
Lichen can provide a good emergency food source but some are poisonous. Some loose toxic qualities when cooked, but do not eat wolf Moss letharia volpina, also called wolf lichen (check it out in this book Poisonous plants and mushrooms of North America scroll down for picture this is usually found in the red woods east of the cascades. Usnea is a common northwest herbal remedy, it has a characteristic white band in the middle when pulled apart. Usnea is pictured above with Ella inspecting it. Usnea can be applied directly to an open wound in emergency situations, it will serve as an antimicrobial compress to stop bleeding and prevent infection. Put this knowledge in your memory bank when you are in the woods, you never know when it may come in handy! Usnea extract has been shown to be effective against a wide spectrum of bacterial and fungal infections. Many lichens are edible. A classic case where lichen was used as a survival food was the story of Martin Hartwell, a Canadian pilot, & his Eskimo companion, they crashed in the Arctic and survived 23 days on a lichen diet supplemented with dextrose from an emergency kit.
Rock tripe was eaten by trappers in Canada in times of scarcity, while in Japan this type of lichen was considered a gourmet food.
Nutritive value of lichens varies from species to species according to the amount of starch present. Lichen is a good source of vitamin C & would prevent scurvy among Eskimos, who rarely ate plants. They would receive their vitamin C by eating the undigested stomach contents of caribou.
Many people from the Ancient Egyptians to the Swedes would make flour for bread from Lichen. To make the flour, the lichen would first be boiled in a alkali solution to neutralize the bitter acids that can be irritating to the intestines. If you are in a survival situation you can put ashes from the camp fire in your water when boiling to get these results. Then the boiled lichen is washed, dried, and pounded into flour. People would mix the lichen flour with wheat flour so their biscuits would keep much longer.
The mana of the Bible may have been lichen (lecanora esculenta) this is still eaten by some desert tribes.
Locally here in the Pacific Northwest, Columbia River Native Americans ate the lichen which grows on fir and pine trees. Sometimes it was boiled. Another method was to wet it, allow it to ferment, and finally baking it.
In India one of the lichens is made into curry powder.
A process of making sugar from lichen was used in Russia in WW2 when beet sugar was scarce.
Lung lichen was used to make beer as a substitute for hops in Siberian monasteries. In the 19th century in Sweden and Russia, there was a brandy making industry that went bankrupt when the lichen supply ran out.
Since some Tribes of the new world & old world were dependent on Reindeer and caribou, and these animals survive the winters by eating lichen, I guess you could say human cultures themselves were dependent on lichen.
Medicinal Uses & Other Uses
coming be continued
Resource Profiles of Northwest Plants P Robinson


Livia said...

How fascinating! I had no idea lichens had such a rich history. This has inspired me to wander around in search of lichen!

Henry Walloon said...


Great posting - loads of information I've not come across before.

Pleased to meet a fellow lichen blogger!

Angie Goodloe LMT, Herbalist said...

Nice to meet both of you! Thanks for visiting and for the compliments;)

Lori said...

really interesting!