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LICHENS AND PEOPLE

For a BIBLIOGRAPHICAL DATABASE OF THE HUMAN USES OF LICHENS

compiled by Sylvia Duran Sharnoff

Go to Database sorted by lichen name or Database sorted by type of use

My attention was on the ground in front of me as we ambled through the New Mexico sagebrush, but Ramah Navajo weaver Jaymes Henio spotted a distant coyote. He explained that we should not hold the intention of finding "ground lichen" but rather we should be open to finding it. It moved from place to place, he said.

(Click on photos for enlarged views.)

 

Known as a vagrant lichen because it grows loose on the ground, "ground lichen" (Xanthoparmelia chlorochroa) is free to wander on the wind.

 

Like the other members of the Ramah Navajo Weavers Association, Jaymes Henio raises and shears his own sheep and spins his own yarns, which he dyes with vegetal dyes. The warm brown in these weavings and in James's skein of yarn come from "ground lichen."

For information on the Ramah Navajo Weavers Association, write to P.O. Box 153, Pine Hill, NM 87357 .

The unique biochemical compounds produced by lichens (see Lichen Biology and the Environment) have made them useful to people in traditional cultures as dyes and medicines.

A sampling of lichen-dyed yarns by textile artists Glenna Dean and Karen Casselman. Some dyes are extracted by boiling the lichens in water; others by fermenting the lichens in ammonia. Karen has developed lichen-conserving methods that greatly reduce the quantity needed.

 

The Chilkat Tlingit traditionally dyed their prized dancing blankets with "wolf lichen" (Letharia vulpina). They traded valuable coastal commodities such as fish grease to groups in the interior in exchange for the lichens.

 

 

"Wolf lichen" (Letharia vulpina) was the most widely used dye lichen for native peoples in North America, from what is now the Yukon, down the west coast, and through the mountain states into Arizona.

The Apache painted wolf-lichen crosses on their feet so they could pass their enemies unseen. In another example of ritualistic use of lichens, the Gitksan in British Columbia associated the lichen Lobaria pulmonaria with frogs and used it in a spring bathing ritual to bring health and long life.

Wolf lichen is poisonous. Its name reflects its traditional use in northern Europe as a poison for wolves, and the Achomawi used it (sometimes with rattlesnake venom added) to make poison arrowheads. Nonetheless, the Blackfoot and the Okanagan-Colville took Letharia as a medicinal tea.

 

In the Russian Far East, Usnea filipendula was used as a powder to treat wounds. When it was tested for antibacterial activitity, the results were quite positive. The lichen compound usnic acid (in extracts of Usnea species) has been used recently in antiboitic salves, deodorants, and herbal tinctures.

Species of Usnea are used in Chinese medicine, contemporary homeopathic medicine, and traditional medicine in the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, and every continent except Australia.

Many other lichens have been used medicinally, and it is estimated that about 50% of all lichen species have antibiotic properities. Research to develop pharmaceuticals from lichens continues, especially in Japan.

 

Explorer Gabriel Franchere tasted pit-cooked Bryoria fremontii in 1814 and recorded, "I thought I had put a piece of soap in my mouth." Some of the many Native American groups in the Northwest who ate this lichen savored it as a delicacy, though; others used it only as a famine food.

 

 

Bryoria fremontii

David Friesan, who lives with the Ulkatcho Indian Band in western British Columbia, recently decided to try Bryoria. He put some to soak in a lake overnight, and in the morning it was covered with freshwater shrimp. So he boiled the whole thing into a tasty soup.

The insulating qualites of Bryoria as fiber made it somewhat useful to the Lillooet and the Nlaka'pamux (Thompson Indians) in British Columbia, who twined it together into clothing when they couldn't get animal skins. It must have been scratchy when dry and soggy when wet.

 

A Secwempec (Shuswap) elder from Kamloops, British Columbia, places Bryoria fremontii in a pit oven to cook it. Photograph copyright Sandra Peacock 1992.

 

At one time, "Oakmoss lichen" (Evernia prunastri) was made into jelly in Turkey , and it was also imported into Egypt to be baked in bread.

Oakmoss lichen is an important ingredient in fine perfumes. It is harvested commercially in large quantities in south-central Europe.

For a BIBLIOGRAPHICAL DATABASE OF THE HUMAN USES OF LICHENS

compiled by Sylvia Duran Sharnoff

Go to Database sorted by lichen name or Database sorted by type of use

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