A combination of fungus, algae and bacteria living together, lichen isn’t a plant. It looks like seaweed, is similar to plants in many respects, and comes with an amazing diversity which result innumerable health benefits.
Lichen grows in the most improbable spots, where only very few other species of the living world could survive. Lichen inches its way along sidewalks, on open spaces, granite rocks along the salty sea coast, climbs along tree trunks and is one of the rare living things to thrive on mountain tops and even cooled lava.
Today, 20.000 species of lichen are numbered across the planet, especially numerous in mountain forests and cold regions of the globe.
Hairy, flat, black, orange or yellow, lichen forms on the ground, on debris, and converts it to organic matter, thus making it possible for other forms of life to appear, first among which comes moss.
It can be harvested anytime during the year, and dried before ingesting it (with caution) or use it to heal.
To sum it up, lichen is quite renowned for its therapeutic and gastronomic benefits. Not only that, but lichen also has an impact on the environment and is used in the textile and food industry.
What exactly is all this about? Here is what you need to know…
Lichen, a short story
According to the ancient botanist Theophrastus (Book III of his History of Plants), in the IIIrd century before Jesus Christ, lichen emanated from bark. Until the second half of the 19th century, naturalists considered lichen to be the “earth’s excrement”, and either classified it as seaweed or as moss.
It was only in 1867 that Simon Schwendener (a Swiss botanist) observed that these plant-like beings not only had a binary nature but were also sometimes parasites. In most cases, however, they produce their own food from light, just like plants.
Many lichenologists disagreed with this theory because they defended the theory that “all living beings were autonomous”!
Relying on the principle of symbiosis, some scientists (among whom Albert Bernhard Frank or Anton de Bary) didn’t completely reject Simon Schwendener’s working hypothesis. In 1875, they proposed the term “symbiotismus” which made everyone agree.
It was thus as late as the nineteenth century that lichen were formally included in the “Fungi phylum” to acknowledge the fact that the fungus was the most defining factor as it merged with algae or cyanobacteria. Indeed, the fungi were the only ones to ensure sexual reproduction.
Lichen, a quick overview
From an etymological point of view, the word lichen comes from Latin, which itself borrowed the word from Greek “leikhên” which means “to lick”, much like the manner these plants attach to trees and rocks on which they grow.
Also called “pioneer plants” because they make it possible for other living beings to grow, lichen fungi grow in arid and often hostile environments. They are also called “compound organisms” because they result from a symbiotic pairing of microscopic green algae cells or cyanobacteria, and 90% heterotrophic fungus.
These symbiots are an incredible asset for environmental equilibrium because as they rot away, they incrementally make the environment less dry and thus favor appearance and growth of more demanding plants.
Apart from the environmental standpoint, what health benefits are applicable for humans?
Species, health benefits and therapeutic value of lichen
In British Columbia, in cooking, “Bear’s hair” lichen (Bryoria fremontii) was mixed in with other ingredients such as elk fat, saskatoon berries, fawn-lily Erythronium and tiger lily bulbs to prepare pudding.
Certain French and Jesuit explorers had learned to master these plants after learning from the Hudson bay Crees, the Hurons, Naskapi and Inuit peoples. They would wash it, shred it into tiny bits and then sprinkle it in soup and broth either with caribou blood, fish eggs or simply fish.
Let us however note that today, lichen is less and less ingested, even if it’s used to prepare chocolate-flavored jelly, fresh vegetables or fruit juice. Washing it well helps remove the bitterness.
Certain Nordic peoples used Iceland moss in cooking in the form of flour to bake cakes and bread.
Other varieties, such as Umbilicaria or rock tripe, are consumed in Canada.
On the Asian continent, especially in the Land of the Rising Sun, “Umbilicaria esculenta” is appreciated in fried tempura, soup or mixed salads and is called “rock bamboo” or “Iwatake”.
There are also other species that serve as thickeners and emulsifiers in the food processing industry.
Good to know:
Generally, lichen is difficult to digest, and some even needed to be cooked for 24 hours.
Certain lichen species can be poisonous because of usnic or vulpinic acid that is present in their tissues.
What are the therapeutic benefits of lichen?
Various lichen species were used over time in traditional medicine by the ancient Egyptians. As eons passed, these practices disappeared, crushed by modern medicine.
In the 20th century, only Iceland moss, also called Cetraria islandica, still figured in the Medicinal Compounds.
However, there are also other species for which the therapeutic benefits deserve to be known.
Once the bitterness is washed out, Iceland moss is used to treat or alleviate nocturnal bouts of sweating, gastric disorders, vomiting caused by pregnancy, migraine-related vomiting, anemia and especially overall exhaustion. A comprehensive febrifuge, antivomiting, antianemic, stomachic and invigorating agent (stimulating the central nervous system), this plant has no more secret for modern medicine.
The clinical proof of its therapeutic effectiveness is listed especially for elderly patients and asthenic persons who suffer from airway catarrh with recurring inflammation.
It can be checked that in Europe, especially in Germany, cough pills sold in pharmacies are often prepared from Iceland moss.
Additionally, Iceland moss is prescribed to soothe chronic intestinal diseases, lung tuberculosis, throat irritation, dyspepsia and diarrhea for infants (in case of nursing withdrawal).
Apart from this particular lichen species, others also boast therapeutic benefits:
– oak lungwort, also called lungmoss (Lobaria pulmonaria). It was recommended to treat pulmonary diseases.
– Common yellow wall lichen (or Parmelia parietina) for which the properties are identical to those of quinine.
– Reindeer lichen or Caribou moss (Cladina rangiferina).
– Buella canescens lichen, which contains antibiotic compounds that treat tuberculosis by inhibiting multiplication of the Koch bacillus.
– Lastly, a host of Usnea like threaded lichen (Usnea plicata) or skull usnea may be used to treat epilepsy.
Good to know about lichen:
Researchers recently discovered that bitter acids in lichen (inedible varieties) presented antibacterial properties to fight against digestive tract infections.
Also, lungwort, for instance, which was previously generally used to treat respiratory infections, has been incorporated today in modern medicine and has proven its effectiveness in a cough syrup.
Unexpected uses of lichen
Cosmetics and perfume
Lichen is often used by perfume makers.
Indeed, the industry harvests up to 9000 tons of lichen a year to extract essential oil used in perfume.
This plant imparts woody scents with hints of seaweed and fungus odors.
For that, 2 specific tree and ground-growing species are particularly appreciated. These are oakmoss (Evernia prunastri) and treemoss (Pseudevernia furfuracea).
In textile processing
For centuries, these organisms have been a source of dye and tincture.
Usually, pigments are more difficult to extract from lichen. However, they tend to resist fading that results from exposure to water and light.
Typically, in the textile world, lichen pigments are used to color Scottish and Irish tweeds.
Usage and dosage of lichen
Here are a few useful tips/advice to avail of the health benefits of lichen:
– To protect the bitter active ingredient of lichen, it is advised to not boil the plant. For that, macerating 0.7 oz (20 g) lichen for 1 quart (1 liter) water) in cold water or an infusion in warm water is enough.
– To prepare a decoction, boil the amount of water required. Toss in the lichen. Throw the water out, and then rinse it with cold water.
After rinsing, again, boil 1.5 quarts (liters) water. Toss the lichen in this boiling water again, and let it sit on the verge of boiling for half-an-hour. After that, sweeten with about 3.5 oz (100 g) honey, and steep for 10 minutes. Filter and sweeten to taste.
As for the dosage, 3 to 4 mugs a day are prescribed.
Good to know about lichen
Today, when referring to the health benefits of lichen, modern medicine simply claims a resounding “yes”. Better yet, it even hopes to derive therapies from it.
However, some erroneously thought that not a single lichen would ever be found to be poisonous, toxic or dangerous for health.
Today, we know that there are some very bitter species of lichen that provoke intestinal disorders.
It has even been shown that:
– the poisonous compound contained in Cetraria pinastri leads to death by slowing the respiratory system.
– use of orcein has been banned in gastronomy because of its toxicity. It was previously used as a food coloring.
Today, the list of poisonous lichen-mushrooms continuously expands.
Among others, remember not to eat the varieties called Xanthoparmelia chlorochroa, Cetraria pinastri or Letharia vulpina.
Smart tip about Lichen and health
In case of doubt, it is always useful to check on a specialist or to ask your consulting physician before opting for a plant-based treatment, or to ask a pharmacist before ingesting it.