Ethnolichenology of the World
PART I: A brief look at lichens and
Uses of lichens by
Variation within a
Lichens as dye
PART II: An
inventory of lichen species that are used by people
and unidentified lichens
Index of lichen names
Table 1: Preparation methods of
lichens used as food by people
Table 2: A
summary of studies on the nutritional composition of lichens
Table 3: A summary of lichens being used as dyes
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PART I: A
brief look at lichens and
Folk taxonomy of
taxonomies have one
name for both lichens and mosses.
Lichens and mosses are not recognized as being different things,
is usually recognized that there are several different kinds of
Folk names for the
Nitinaht, Hesquiat, Madhouse: P'u7up (Turner et al. 1983)
Southern Kwakiult: P'elems (Turner and Bell 1973)
Haida: K'ínxaan or
K'ínnaan (Turner 1974)
Bella Coola: Ipst [on
ground] or Ipst-aak or [on tree] (Turner 1974)
Although the lichen-moss taxon is
common, there are some folk taxonomies where lichens and mosses were
considered to be the same thing.
The Waorani of Ecuador grouped at least one lichen, the
hallucinogenic Ne/ne/ndape/ (Dictyonema spp. nov.),
fungi instead of with mosses. This
may be because Dictyonema,
basidiolichen, is much more fungus-like than most lichens.
The Saami recognized lichens as a
distinct group from mosses. This
is probably because of the close connection between reindeer and Saami
society. The reindeer enjoy eating lichen
will not eat moss.
Bedouin sheep herders refer to Aspicilia
esculenta as Trub,
the Libyan shepherds refer to the same lichen as Torba. Both
names are also applied to dirt.
This lichen grows as a vagrant on the sand and rocks and is used
varying degrees as a sheep forage.
It is interesting that a lichen is grouped with dirt instead of
moss. This is possibly because the
lichen looks a lot like small pebbles, and because there isn't much
moss in the
Folk taxonomies often create
intermediate taxa of lichens or lichen-mosses. This
will often refer to a grouping of lichens based on
substrate (most common), growth habit (common), or colour (uncommon).
The most common intermediate taxa
are ones created on the basis of the substrate that the lichen is
on. There are several examples of
this. The Nitinaht differentiated
lichen-mosses by the branch that they grew on. Lichen-mosses
were generally called P'u7up. A
lichen-moss on spruce was called Tuxupati·c
p'u7up, on hemlock Q'wi(tl)'apati·c
p'u7up, and on grand fir Čabsapati·c
p'u7up (Turner et al. 1983). The Bella Coola call lichen-mosses on
the ground Ipst,
those on tree Ipst-aak
(Turner 1974). The Lepchas and
Nepalis of Sikkim, India, refer to lichens as Jhau. Tree
lichens are Rukh ku jhau
and rock lichens are Dhungo ku jhau (Saklani and Upreti 1992).
Although these intermediate taxon
have the superficial appearance of a specific taxa this usually isn't
case. Most groups of people do
recognize a few specific lichens within these intermediate taxa as
The Nitinaht create intermediate
taxa of epiphytic lichen-mosses based on the type of tree that they are
on, and they further differentiate different kinds of lichens. According to Turner et al. (1983) the
lichens with the Òcream on the insideÓ were used for
bandages. This is probably referring to
creamy central cord in the Usnea
thallus, which is a diagnostic feature of the genus.
It is interesting that the Nitinaht would have known a
diagnostic character of Usnea and
used this to distinguish the lichen, especially when one notes that the
Nitinaht use Usnea as
and this lichen has characteristically high concentrations of usnic
strongest antibiotic to be discovered in lichens.
all people differentiated lichens according to the substrate they grew
on. Specifically, northern peoples tended
to classify lichens according to growth habit, use, or (more rarely)
colour. This is probably because of the
abundance and importance of ground lichens in these areas.
Lichen taxa of selected
northern First Peoples
Barrens-Keewatin [most names probably shared with other
Inuit groups] (Wilson 1979)
Nagjjuujaq: Unused yellow-green bushy lichens
Quajuq: Flat foliose lichens
hairy lichens growing on the
ground (also Baffin Island, Ungava-Labrador,
Greenland Inuit, and North Slope Inuit)
Uriugaq: "White moss"
Saami of northern Scandinavia (Lynge1921, cited in Perez-Llano 1944)
Jaegel: Large fruticose lichens commonly eaten
Lappo: Beard type lichens enjoyed by reindeer
Gadna: Foliose lichens growing on rocks and
normally eaten by
Besides classifying lichens
differently, northern First Peoples also generally have more names for
lichens. This is probably a
reflection of the larger role that lichens play in these cultures. Both the Barrens-Keewatin and the Saami
mentioned above recognize a
relatively large number of lichens. The Yuqpik of Alaska do as well.
Lichens named by the Yuqpik
[would like to be stretched]: Flavocetraria cucullata
[lit. ÒReindeer foodÓ]: Cladina
names given to lichens are often compound names and thus to some extent
how the culture viewed the lichen.
Quite often the name of a lichen is based on where the lichen
grows. The lichen substrate was important
creating intermediate taxa, and it was also thought to be an important
characteristic of individual
Lichen names that reflect
(Tl)'a(tl)'x7a·7aq [lit. "the ones flat
against the rock"] (Southern Kwakiult): Peltigera
[lit. "seaweed of the ground"] (Southern Kwakiult): Peltigera
growing on rocks"] (Nitinaht): Peltigera aphthosa and
Pen'pen'emekxísxn' [lit. "liver on rock"]
(Okanagan): any lichen similar to Cladonia
"growing on rocks"] (Makah): Sticta
[lit. "Earth flower"] (Pima: California): Unknown
Manil maashaxaeme [lit.
"Mountain moss"] (Karok: California): Letharia
"Rock mushroom"] (Japan): Umbilicaria
Flor de piedra
[lit. Stoneflower] (Spain): Ramalina bourgeana, sometimes Xanthoria
Stonebreaker] (Spain): Xanthoria parientina
Tripe de roche
["Rock tripe"] (European
explorers): Umbilicaria spp. and Lasallia
Yerba de la Piedra [lit.
"Stone grass"] (Uruguay): Usnea densirostra
Lichens were also often named
according to how the people used that lichen.
Lichen names that reflect use
or He-ho-wa-ins'-tots [lit. "Yellow dye" or
(Cheyenne): Letharia vulpina
"Dye"; name also applied to
other plants] (Blackfoot): Letharia
[lit. "Deer snuff"] (Denís: Brazil): unknown
or Female gauze
(China): Usnea diffracta
Brødmose or Broedmåså [lit. bread moss], Matmåså [lit. food moss], or Svinmåså
[lit. "Swine moss"] (Iceland): Cetraria
"Wolf moss"] (Sweden): Letharia vulpina
finally, some lichens were named according to what they looked like. These names often imply an ontogeny for
the lichen and may be associated with creation stories.
Lichen names reflecting
appearance or folk ontogeny
[translation] (Northern Paiute: Nevada): Orange and
crustose lichens on rocks
[lit. "Frog's dress"] (Gitksan: BC): Lobaria oregana, may have also applied to
[translation] (China): Usnea diffracta
(Tl)'i·(tl)'i·dqwaqsibak'kw [lit. "resembling whale's
(Southern Kwakiult) : Peltigera spp.
["would like to be stretched"] (Yuqpik: Alaska): Flavocetraria
According to Menomini legend,
lichens are said to be
scabs from the head of Må'nåpus.
Må'nåpus placed the scabs where they are to keep his
uncles and aunts
from starving. Another version of
this legend is that the lichens were scabs from when
Må'nåpus burned his
buttocks, and they came off as he slid down a slanting rock (Smith
1923: pg 21,
The Northern Paiute of Nevada
called the orange and yellow crustose lichens on rocks "Lizard semen" [translated]. This
name comes from the little pushups that western fence lizards do on
The Okanagan-Colville have a
about how Bryoria fremontii
(Turner et al. 1980). The lichen
is said to have originated from Coyote's hair. There
are several variants of this legend. In
one variation, coyote tries to catch
some swans but they end up flying away with him and only letting go
when he is
high up in the air. Coyote falls
and becomes caught in the branches of a tree. When
coyote is finally able to free himself he leaves much
of his hair entangled in the branches.
Coyote then transformed this hair into Bryoria
fremontii, saying "You, my hair,
will not be wasted. The coming people will
gather you and
make you into food." And the
lichen has been used as food ever since.
The Gitksan called a species of Lobaria Nagaganaw [lit. "Frog's dress"] (Turner and Clifton,
or "Frog blanket" (Gottesfeld 1995).
The lichen was generally associated
with frogs and used it in a spring bathing ritual to bring health and
In China Usnea diffracta has been called "Lao Tzu's beard"
and has been described as a medicine in Chinese herbals as early as 500
A. D. (Strickmann, unpublished
notes). The legendary Lao Tzu is said to
wrote the Tao Te Ching about 2,600 years ago. There
must be a cool story behind the lichen if it is named after
Uses of lichens by people
have been used for many different purposes by people across the world. Lichens are most commonly used for
medicine, dye, or food. As a food
stuff lichens have often been directly eaten by humans, but they have
used indirectly to make alcohol or molasses, or to feed to livestock. Lichens have also commonly been used as
a fiber for many different things, anything from baby diapers to
clothing to tinder
Some of the more novel and
uses of lichens are listed below:
A novel species of Dictyonema
was used by the Waorani as a hallucinogen. They
called the lichen Ne/ne/ndape/
and used it in shamanistic rituals (Davis and Yost 1983).
An unidentified saxicolous lichen
was called Jievut hiawsik [lit. "Earth flower"] by
the Pima of California.
It was used as a good luck charm, and it was smoked for its
narcotic effect (Curtin 1949).
In Mauritania, Parmelia
paraguariensi is mixed with
smoked. It is also burned as an insect
repellent and used as perfume (Lange 1957).
An unidentified pyrenocarpous
lichen was used by the Denís of Amazonian Brazil as an
Parmotrema chinense, Parmotrema
perforatum, and Everniastrum
cirrhatum are all called Chharila
India and are used medicinally.
They have also been used as an a snuff and as an aphrodisiac
and Singh 1971).
Peltigera canina was used by
the Southern Kwakiult as a love charm
(Boas 1921, cited in
The Apache used Letharia
vulpina to paint crosses on their
feet so they
their enemies unseen (Sharnoff 1997)
A species of Peltigera or Lobaria was called "Frog blanket"
by the Gitksan of British Columbia, and
because it was associated with frogs it was used in a spring bathing
bring health and long life (Gottesfeld 1995 ).
Letharia vulpina and Vulpicida
pinastri have both been used to
poison wolves in northern
Europe (Sharnoff 1997; Uphof 1959) and Letharia vulpina may have also been used to make poison
the Achomawi of California (Merriam 1967).
parietina and Parmelia
saxatilis are used in the ritual
of well-dressing in England
to make miniature scenes to decorate wells (Vickery 1975).
The Secwepemc (Turner 1998),
(Turner 1998), and Bella Coola (Turner 1973) all use Alectoria
sarmentosa and Usnea
spp. as false whiskers and artificial hair for decorating dance masks,
especially for children masquerading.
Cladina stellaris has been
harvested in large quantities in Scandinavia
to use to make wreaths, floral decorations, and architect's models
Usnea longissima was probably
the original tinsel on Christmas trees
in Northern Europe (Brodo et al. 2001).
Lichens, especially Pseudevernia
prunastri, and Lobaria
pulmonaria, have been used in
Europe to make perfumes and other
cosmetics. They have also been
used in tanning and in the manufacture of some chemicals.
within a lichen species
have often noted that not all lichens of the same species are the same,
they can vary in quality depending on where they were growing and when
were harvested. Because of this,
people have often traditionally gathered lichens from certain places or
Bryoria fremontii was commonly
eaten by First People's of Interior B.
C., and apparently varied greatly in palatability.
The lichen was said to taste different depending on the
locality, elevation, and species of substrate tree (Turner 1977; and
1977, cited in Turner
1993). Different populations of
the lichen would often be tasted to determine which population would be
The Menomini boiled Sticta
glomerulifera into a soup and ate
it. Sticta glomerulifera grows on many trees, but the Menomini
collect it off of hard maple or hemlock trees (Smith 1923: pg. 60).
Ojibwa boiled Lobaria amplissima and ate
it in a soup. They would only
collect the lichen if it was growing on white pine (Smith 1932: pg 406;
in Arnason 1981 and in Yarnell
Evernia prunastri, Pseudevernia
furfuracea, and Lobaria
pulmonaria are all used in Europe
to produce oleo-resin for
perfume. Uphof (1959) records that
Evernia prunastri and Pseudevernia
furfuracea growing on oak
thought to contain the best oleoresin.
The species of tree that the Lobaria pulmonaria is growing on is also thought to have
on the quality of the oil.
tinctoria is used to produce
in Europe. Lichen that is growing
on the Canary and Cape Verde Islands is thought to be the best quality
Some people also thought that the
time of year had an effect on the quality of the lichen.
Uphof (1959) records that Parmelia
saxatilis, a lichen traditionally
and gathered in Scotland for an orange-ish dye, was usually collected
when it is supposed to be the richest in dye materials.
Strickmann (unpublished notes) reports
that Chinese herbalists would only gather Usnea diffracta for medicine during the fifth lunar month.
Llano (1944b) reports that Bryoria
spp. [Alectoria jubata] and Umbilicaria pennsylvanica were found to vary in protein content
the season that they were tested.
When Burkholder (1944) tested lichens for antibiotics, he found
lichens had characteristic antibiotic properties depending on the area
they were collected from.
Lichens as medicine
Many lichens have been used
medicinally across the world. A
lichen's usefulness as medicine probably usually comes from the lichen
secondary compounds that are abundant in most lichen thalli. Different lichens produce a wide
variety of these compounds, most of which are unique to lichens. The exact use of these lichen compounds
is still being debated, but some lichen compounds can act as
fungicides, and herbivore deterrents (Lawrey 1986).
This undoubtedly gives the lichen some protection, and
probably endows the lichen with some medicinal characters as well.
Sharnoff (1997) estimates that
of all lichen species have antibiotic properties. The
scientific search for antibiotics in lichens started in
1944 when Burkholder found that extracts from 27 out of the 42
species of lichen that he tested inhibited the growth of certain
bacteria. Lichen compounds have been found
as anti-tumor agents (Kupchan and Kopperman 1975; Takai et al 1979),
antibiotics (Burkholder 1944; Vartia 1973), and anti-inflammatories
al. 1992; Skidmore and Whitehouse 1965).
Research to develop
from lichens continues, especially in Japan (Sharnoff 1997). There is currently work being done to
genetically engineer lichens so that lichen products could easily be
in the lab (Miao et al. 2001).
Patent Number 6132984 (issued on October 17th, 2000
to J. E.
Davies, B. Walters, and G. Saxena from TerraGen Discovery Inc.) is for
for inhibiting eukaryotic protein kinase activity (and thus the
sporulation of Streptomyces)
with vulpinic acid or usnic acid (two lichen
of the most widely studied lichen compounds are usnic acid, vulpinic
atranorin, and protolichesterinic acid.
Usnic acid is found in large quantities in Usnea spp., as well as in several other lichen
genera. It is a fairly wide
spectrum antibiotic and is the most active antibiotic to be
lichens (Abo-Khatwa et al. 1996; Shibamoto and Wei 1984; Rowe et al.
Dobrescu et al. 1993). Usnic acid
and diffractaic acid (a derivative of usnic acid) have both been
to be analgesic when tested on mice (Okuyama et al. 1995).
And a mixture of usnic acid and
isolichenin has been demonstrated to have moderate activity against
and Ehrlich tumor cells (Periera et al. 1994).
is some research to indicate that protolicheresterinic acid may be
the treatment of ulcers and cancers, and in AIDS prevention. It has been documented that
protolicheresterinic acid has in vitro activity against Helicobacter
pylori (Ingolfsdottir et al.
1997) and DNA polymerase
activity of human immunodeficiency virus-1 reverse transcriptase
al. 1995). Protolicheresterinic
acid was also found to be antiproliferative and cytotoxic to T-47D and
cell lines cultured from breast carcinomas, and to K-562 from
(Ogmundsdottir et al. 1998).
Protolichesterinic acid may perform these functions by
5-lipoxygenase, and this would also contribute to protolichesterinic
reported anti-inflammatory actions (Ogmundsdottir et al., 1998).
acid also has some mild antibiotic properties, but it is not as strong
antibiotic as usnic acid. It is,
however, a significant herbivore deterrent and has been found to be
animals in large doses (Lawrey 1986).
Atranorin has been found to be much less biologically active
above mentioned compounds (Lawrey 1986), but it is still a bit of a
deterrent (Abo-Khatwa et al. 1996).
property of lichens that had them being used for medicines is their
shapes. According to the 'Doctrine
of Signatures' of the 15th century Europe a plant could be
treat whatever ailment it most looked like. This
use was mostly obsolete be 1800 (Llano 1944b),
but some of these uses have persisted.
Some lichens commonly used according to the Doctrine of
include species of Cladonia, Evernia, Lobaria,
Parmelia, Peltigera, Pertusaria, Physcia, Roccella, Usnea,
and Xanthoria. The importance of this use is evident
when one looks at the origin of the word 'lichen'.
'Lichen' comes from the Greek word 'Leprous' and
the use of some lichens for treating cutaneous diseases due to their
peeling-skin appearance (Llano 1944b).
Lichens as food
Dr. Hansteen, who was the chief
lecturer in the Agricultural School at Aas, Norway in 1911, prophesized
lichen was to become the great popular food of the masses, because of
cheapness and nutritive properties (Swartz 1911). This
didn't happen, but lichens have frequently been used as
food by people. They have often
been used as famine food, but there are also many peoples who have used
for food on a more regular basis.
Lichens are sometimes even been used as a delicacy (like Umbilicaria
esculenta in Japan) or a dessert
islandica in Scandinavia).
There are two problems that
have generally encountered when eating lichens. The
first problem is the secondary lichen compound often
found in lichens. Most lichens
contain a variety of secondary compounds.
These compounds are generally unique to lichens and because of
referred to as 'lichen compounds'.
Lichen compounds are usually acids and thus have an acrid flavor. Only two lichen compounds have been
found to be poisonous, vulpinic acid and pinastric acid, and these
have to be ingested in significant amounts to be fatal for humans. But many other lichen compounds are
herbivore deterrents, and can be very bad tasting, a digestive
would could probably even be toxic if eaten in large quantities for
periods of time.
The second problem with eating
lichens is that the complex carbohydrates in lichens are not easily
in the human digestive tract.
Lichens contain a variety of polysaccharides.
contain lichenin (soluble in hot water) and/or isolichenin
cold water, turns iodine purple), and can often also contain other
polysaccharides such as evernin and usnin (Swartz 1911).
Lichens can also often contain small quantities
of polysaccharides often found in other plants, such as cellulose and
(Perez-Llano 1944). Lichen
carbohydrates were fairly well studied over a century ago, after
in 1874 that they could be eaten as substitute carbohydrates by
(Swartz 1911). They did not discover
a cure for diabetes, but they did discover that these lichen
were not digestible by humans, dogs, or rabbits (Swartz, 1911). However, if lichenin and isolichenin
are hydrolyzed, they yield glucose and other readily digestible simple sugars.
People have traditionally used
various preparation methods to make lichens edible by removing the
secondary compounds and hydrolyzing the lichen polysaccharides. Table 1
summarizes these various techniques. The
most frequently used preparation
technique is boiling or steaming.
This has been used by groups of people from North America,
India. Boiling would help to
hydrolyze the lichen polysaccharides into digestible forms. It would also help to remove many
lichen compounds. It is often
recorded that people would boil the lichen and discard the water, which
indicates that the boiling water was being used to remove the lichen
The lichen was also often soaked
rinsed with water. This could have
removed some lichen compounds as well, but they are generally not very
in pure water. Both the Iroquois
and northern Europeans are recorded to have soaked the lichens in ash
water. Wood ash is alkaline, and so it
have been a lot more effective in removing the acidic lichen compounds. Alkali could also help to hydrolyze
The addition of dilute acid, or
acidic things like onion, is common when cooking lichen.
Acids could possible have helped to
hydrolyze lichen polysaccharides, or they might make some lichen
The value of lichens as a food
stuff is probably usually just as a source of carbohydrates. The nutrient composition of lichens
varies widely between different species of lichens but they are
in carbohydrates and low in most other nutrients.
Lichens may also provide some
nutrients. Lal and Ranganatha Rao
(1956) found calcium and iron levels to higher in lichens than cereals
comparable to green leafy materials.
The calcium to phosphorus ratio they found was from 2 to 14,
lichens could serve as a good source of calcium. Peltigera
been found to be relatively high in protein and essential amino acids. Various studies have shown
lichens to contain some vitamins, but results have not been consistent.
findings of different studies on the
nutritional value of lichens.
The various findings have not been consistent.
This variation probably partly arises from variation in
nutrient composition between and within species. Some
of the variation is also likely experimental error as
some of the studies are quite old.
Lichens can also accumulate
from their environment. Cetraria
islandica and Cladina spp.
have been found to contain particularly high levels of lead,
and mercury. Parmelia
saxatilis and Xanthoria
parietina have been found to
absorb enough beryllium from
their environment to harmful to animals (Perez-Llano 1944). In some areas Parmelia
molliuscula can contain toxic
selenium salt (Perez-Llano 1944). And the natural radionuclides Po-210
Pb-210 both accumulate in lichens, as well as Cs-137 and Sr-90 from
test explosions (Airaksinen et al. 1986).
Lichens as dyes
Lichens are frequently used as
The lichen dye can be
extracted by boiling the lichen in water or by fermenting the lichen in
Traditionally urine was often
used as an ammonia source, and the lichen would be fermented for at
least 2 to
There is no record
of the ammonia fermentation method being used in North America.
It seems to be restricted to Europe. Table 3 gives a short summary of lichen dye use. This is an incomplete list.
For more complete information on
the subject, refer to Brough (1984, 1988), Casselman
(1999), and Kok (1966).
PART II: An
inventory of lichen species that are used by people
and unidentified lichens
Index of lichen names
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