Ethnolichenology of the World

PART I: A brief look at lichens and people
        Folk taxonomy of lichens
Lichen mythology
          Uses of lichens by people
          Variation within a lichen species
          Lichens as medicine
        Lichens as food
          Lichens as dye
PART II: An inventory of lichen species that are used by people
       Lichens A-M
       Lichens N-X 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 people

Folk taxonomy of lichens

        Generally folk taxonomies have one name for both lichens and mosses.  Lichens and mosses are not recognized as being different things, but it is usually recognized that there are several different kinds of lichen-mosses.

Folk names for the lichen-moss taxon
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)
Lillooet: Pá7sem (Turner 1974)

        Although the lichen-moss taxon is common, there are some folk taxonomies where lichens and mosses were not considered to be the same thing.  The Waorani of Ecuador grouped at least one lichen, the hallucinogenic Ne/ne/ndape/ (Dictyonema spp. nov.), with other fungi instead of with mosses.  This may be because Dictyonema, being a 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 but will not eat moss.
        Bedouin sheep herders refer to Aspicilia esculenta as Trub, and 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 to varying degrees as a sheep forage.  It is interesting that a lichen is grouped with dirt instead of with moss.  This is possibly because the lichen looks a lot like small pebbles, and because there isn't much moss in the desert.
        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 growing 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, and 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 the case.  Most groups of people do recognize a few specific lichens within these intermediate taxa as being different.
        The Nitinaht create intermediate taxa of epiphytic lichen-mosses based on the type of tree that they are growing 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 the 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 a bandage and this lichen has characteristically high concentrations of usnic acid, the strongest antibiotic to be discovered in lichens.
            Not 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
        Tingaujaq: Dark 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 by reindeer
        Lappo: Beard type lichens enjoyed by reindeer but not commonly eaten
        Gadna: Foliose lichens growing on rocks and trees not normally eaten by reindeer
        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 of Alaska
Aouq: Cetraria crispa
Ninguujuq [would like to be stretched]: Flavocetraria cucullata
Tuntutnuukaik [lit. ÒReindeer foodÓ]: Cladina rangiferina
Qelquaq: Lobaria scrobiculata
Kusskoak: Nephroma arcticum
            The names given to lichens are often compound names and thus to some extent reflect 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 for creating intermediate taxa, and it was also thought to be an important characteristic  of individual lichens.
Lichen names that reflect lichen substrate
(Tl)'a(tl)'x7a·7aq [lit. "the ones flat against the rock"]  (Southern Kwakiult): Peltigera
Tl'extl'ekw'és [lit. "seaweed of the ground"] (Southern Kwakiult): Peltigera canina
T'it'idičč7a· [lit. "rocks growing on rocks"] (Nitinaht): Peltigera aphthosa and
   Peltigera canina
Pen'pen'emekxísxn' [lit. "liver on rock"] (Okanagan): any lichen similar to Cladonia
Didi'dichia [lit. "growing on rocks"]  (Makah): Sticta spp.
Jievut hiawsik [lit. "Earth flower"] (Pima: California): Unknown saxicolous lichen
Manil maashaxaeme [lit. "Mountain moss"] (Karok: California): Letharia vulpina
Iwa-take [lit. "Rock mushroom"]  (Japan): Umbilicaria esculenta
Flor de piedra [lit. Stoneflower] (Spain): Ramalina bourgeana, sometimes Xanthoria
Rompepiedra [lit. 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
Hēhyōwō'ĭsts or He-ho-wa-ins'-tots [lit. "Yellow dye" or "Yellow root"] 
   (Cheyenne): Letharia vulpina
E‑simatch‑sis [lit. "Dye"; name also applied to other plants] (Blackfoot): Letharia
Baduhu-tsinā [lit. "Deer snuff"] (Denís: Brazil): unknown pyrenocarpous lichen
Pine gauze, or Female gauze [translation] (China): Usnea diffracta
Brødmose or Broedmåså [lit. bread moss], Matmåså [lit. food moss], or Svinmåså
   [lit. "Swine moss"] (Iceland): Cetraria islandica
Ulf-mossa [lit. "Wolf moss"] (Sweden): Letharia vulpina
            And 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
Lizard semen [translation] (Northern Paiute: Nevada): Orange and yellow crustose lichens on rocks
Nagaganaw [lit. "Frog's dress"] (Gitksan: BC): Lobaria oregana, may have also applied to                 Peltigera spp.
Lao-tzu's beard [translation] (China): Usnea diffracta
(Tl)'i·(tl)'i·dqwaqsibak'kw [lit. "resembling whale's baleen"] (Southern Kwakiult) :  Peltigera spp.
Ninguujuq ["would like to be stretched"] (Yuqpik: Alaska): Flavocetraria cucullata
Lichen Mythology
        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, 60).
        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 rocks (Sharnoff 1996).
        The Okanagan-Colville have a legend about how Bryoria fremontii was created (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, unpublished) or "Frog blanket" (Gottesfeld 1995).  The lichen was generally associated with frogs and used it in a spring bathing ritual to bring health and long life (Gottesfeld 1995).
        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 have wrote the Tao Te Ching about 2,600 years ago.  There must be a cool story behind the lichen if it is named after him.

Uses of lichens by people
        Lichens 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 also been 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 to bedding.
        Some of the more novel and interesting 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 tobacco and 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 recreational snuff (Prance 1972).
        Parmotrema chinense, Parmotrema perforatum, and Everniastrum cirrhatum are all called Chharila in India and are used medicinally.  They have also been used as an a snuff and as an aphrodisiac (Chandra and Singh 1971).
        Peltigera canina was used by the Southern Kwakiult as a love charm (Boas 1921, cited in Turner and Bell 1973).
        The Apache used Letharia vulpina to paint crosses on their feet so they could pass 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 ritual to 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 arrowheads by the Achomawi of California (Merriam 1967).
            Xanthoria 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), Nuxalk (Turner 1998), and Bella Coola (Turner 1973) all use Alectoria sarmentosa and Usnea spp. as false whiskers and artificial hair for decorating dance masks, and 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 (Kauppi 1979).
        Usnea longissima was probably the original tinsel on Christmas trees in Northern Europe (Brodo et al. 2001).
        Lichens, especially Pseudevernia furfuracea, Evernia 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.

Variation within a lichen species
            People have often noted that not all lichens of the same species are the same, and they can vary in quality depending on where they were growing and when they were harvested.  Because of this, people have often traditionally gathered lichens from certain places or at certain times.
        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 Marshall 1977, cited in Turner and Davis 1993).  Different populations of the lichen would often be tasted to determine which population would be harvested.
        The Menomini boiled Sticta glomerulifera into a soup and ate it.  Sticta glomerulifera grows on many trees, but the Menomini would only collect it off of hard maple or hemlock trees (Smith 1923: pg. 60).
        The 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; cited in Arnason 1981 and in Yarnell 1964).
        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 branches are thought to contain the best oleoresin.  The species of tree that the Lobaria pulmonaria is growing on is also thought to have much influence on the quality of the oil.
            Roccella tinctoria is used to produce Orseille dye in Europe.  Lichen that is growing on the Canary and Cape Verde Islands is thought to be the best quality (Uphof 1959).  
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 called crottle and gathered in Scotland for an orange-ish dye, was usually collected in August 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 depending on the season that they were tested.   When Burkholder (1944) tested lichens for antibiotics, he found that the lichens had characteristic antibiotic properties depending on the area that 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 antibiotics, 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 50% 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 different species of lichen that he tested inhibited the growth of certain bacteria.  Lichen compounds have been found to act as anti-tumor agents (Kupchan and Kopperman 1975; Takai et al 1979), antibiotics (Burkholder 1944; Vartia 1973), and anti-inflammatories (Handa et al. 1992; Skidmore and Whitehouse 1965).
        Research to develop pharmaceuticals 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 produced 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 a method for inhibiting eukaryotic protein kinase activity (and thus the sporulation of Streptomyces) with vulpinic acid or usnic acid (two lichen compounds).
            Some of the most widely studied lichen compounds are usnic acid, vulpinic acid, 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 characterized from lichens (Abo-Khatwa et al. 1996; Shibamoto and Wei 1984; Rowe et al. 1991; Dobrescu et al. 1993).  Usnic acid and diffractaic acid (a derivative of usnic acid) have both been demonstrated 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 sarcoma 180 and Ehrlich tumor cells (Periera et al. 1994).
            There is some research to indicate that protolicheresterinic acid may be valuable in 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 (Pengsuparp et al. 1995).  Protolicheresterinic acid was also found to be antiproliferative and cytotoxic to T-47D and ZR-75-1 cell lines cultured from breast carcinomas, and to K-562 from erythro-leukemia (Ogmundsdottir et al. 1998).  Protolichesterinic acid may perform these functions by inhibiting 5-lipoxygenase, and this would also contribute to protolichesterinic acid's reported anti-inflammatory actions (Ogmundsdottir et al., 1998).
            Vulpinic acid also has some mild antibiotic properties, but it is not as strong of an antibiotic as usnic acid.  It is, however, a significant herbivore deterrent and has been found to be toxic to animals in large doses (Lawrey 1986).  Atranorin has been found to be much less biologically active than the above mentioned compounds (Lawrey 1986), but it is still a bit of a herbivore deterrent (Abo-Khatwa et al. 1996).
            Another property of lichens that had them being used for medicines is their cool little shapes.  According to the 'Doctrine of Signatures' of the 15th century Europe a plant could be used to 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 Signatures 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 refers to 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 that lichen was to become the great popular food of the masses, because of its 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 lichens for food on a more regular basis.  Lichens are sometimes even been used as a delicacy (like Umbilicaria esculenta in Japan) or a dessert (like Cetraria islandica in Scandinavia).
        There are two problems that people 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 this are 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 compounds would 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 irritant, and would could probably even be toxic if eaten in large quantities for extended periods of time.
        The second problem with eating lichens is that the complex carbohydrates in lichens are not easily broken down in the human digestive tract.  Lichens contain a variety of polysaccharides.  They usually  contain lichenin (soluble in hot water) and/or isolichenin (soluble in cold water, turns iodine purple), and can often also contain other lichen 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 inulin (Perez-Llano 1944).   Lichen carbohydrates were fairly well studied over a century ago, after Külz suggested in 1874 that they could be eaten as substitute carbohydrates by diabetics (Swartz 1911).  They did not discover a cure for diabetes, but they did discover that these lichen polysaccharides 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 lichen 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, Europe, and 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 compounds. 
        The lichen was also often soaked or rinsed with water.  This could have removed some lichen compounds as well, but they are generally not very soluble 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 would have been a lot more effective in removing the acidic lichen compounds.  Alkali could also help to hydrolyze lichen polysaccharides.
        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 compounds more water soluble.
        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 generally high in carbohydrates and low in most other nutrients. 
        Lichens may also provide some other nutrients.  Lal and Ranganatha Rao (1956) found calcium and iron levels to higher in lichens than cereals and more comparable to green leafy materials.  The calcium to phosphorus ratio they found was from 2 to 14, showed that lichens could serve as a good source of calcium.  Peltigera canina has 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.
        Table 2 summarizes the 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 toxins from their environment.  Cetraria islandica and Cladina spp.  have been found to contain particularly high levels of lead, cadmium, 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 levels of selenium salt (Perez-Llano 1944). And the natural radionuclides Po-210 and Pb-210 both accumulate in lichens, as well as Cs-137 and Sr-90 from nuclear test explosions (Airaksinen et al. 1986).

Lichens as dyes
        Lichens are frequently used as dyes.  The lichen dye can be extracted by boiling the lichen in water or by fermenting the lichen in ammonia.  Traditionally urine was often used as an ammonia source, and the lichen would be fermented for at least 2 to 3 weeks.   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
       Lichens A-M
       Lichens N-X and unidentified lichens
       Index of lichen names

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