A Lot to Like about Lichens: Humble Little Handmaids of Nature

Lichens for Colour? Lichens For Food? The Second Installment of Cheap And Healthy Hobbies For Winter Explains Why You Might Want to Know More About Them.

Lichens for Colour? Lichens For Food? The Second Installment of Cheap And Healthy Hobbies For Winter Explains Why You Might Want to Know More About Them.

Lichens caught my eye last winter, when cold season foraging became an experimental and fun reason to get out for a hike through the snowy landscape. With most things dead or sleeping under snowcover, I widened my search as much as possible, including not just food and tea sources but also plants for natural dyeing, a hobby I picked up some years ago.

While the surface looks still and serene, I found the winter forest teeming with life if you know where to look, with tree fungi and lichens leading the charge of useful things. Already a fanatic about mycopigments (dyes derived from mushrooms), when I discovered lichen dyes I needed to find out everything I could. A journey into the vast mystery contained in small things had begun, the discovery of the macrocosm in the microcosm (and other William Blake type sentiments).

Dictionary.com defines lichens as any complex organism of the group Lichenes, composed of a fungus in symbiotic union with an alga and having a greenish, gray, yellow, brown, or blackish thallus that grows in leaflike, crustlike, or branching forms on rocks, trees, etc., and it is one life form represented in spades in our tundra/boreal climate zone, winter and summer alike.

Literature about lichens is not the easiest thing to find outside the University library and there’s lots of heavy science jargon, but for the hobbyist once you’ve identified which lichens you are looking for, simple experimentation will take you far. Boiling samples in water or submerging them in an ammonia solution for a couple of days will tell you if you are on the right track. The whole thing makes you feel very smart.
Used commonly before chemical dyes existed, the original Harris Tweeds were dyed with lichens and are representative of some of the earthier colours possible, but through orchil-producing lichens (the ones fermented in ammonia) one can achieve hues ranging from soft violet through true red onto majestic fuchsias and purples. Blues and yellows are possible as well with other lichens. Interestingly, lichens only dye protein fibers like silk and wool, or fur and leather. Synthetics and plant fibers will not take the dyes permanently, if at all.

Called the humble little handmaidens of nature, lichens are also a main food source for reindeer and caribou, and as there are fewer toxic species of lichens than mushrooms they make a great place to start some cutting edge winter food foraging for people too. That said, exercise caution and have someone who knows lichens well confirm your identification of the type of lichen before you even consider putting it in your mouth. Correct identification can be tricky with these guys.

Reindeer Moss, actually a lichen properly known as Cladonia Rangeferina, is a popular and approachable lichen often served deep fried with a dipping sauce, used in such high end regional cuisine restaurants as Denmark’s NOMA. It may seem crazy at first, but getting in touch with nature on this deep level and discovering the taste of the woods through all four seasons will enrich every aspect of your life. It will also impress your hippest friends.

It’s important to note that lichens grow incredibly slowly, so they must be gathered with great care to take only what is needed for a project. Newfoundland has its first endangered lichen, the boreal felt lichen, due to suburban development threatening its habitat. Lichens are also important in monitoring air quality in an area, as despite their remarkable tenacity in surviving even arctic climates they are extremely sensitive to changes in pollution and moisture levels.

Lichens are best gathered wet to prevent cracking, and for dyeing use should be dried immediately and carefully. There is a facebook group, Mushroom and Lichen Dyers United, that is a friendly and positive forum with many people happy to help recommend books or give advice to the novice. Ultimately, though, just get out there and try it. It’s obscure enough that any results at all will be impressive and the expression “you’re not doing it wrong if no one knows what you are doing” is more than relevant. Maybe you’ll get some reindeer approved snacks too!

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