“But what good are they?,” some may ask.
Just recently the husband went to the store for toothpaste and came home with something containing a lichen. You may have products containing lichens in your house and not even know it! One reason you don’t know is that lichens sometimes hide behind other names. See “A word about mosses” for a little clarification on that confusion.
Caution: As with all such ethnobotanical reviews, you are not encouraged to experiment with ingesting any wild plant or fungus (etc.) unless you know exactly what’s what, and even then only with discretion. Here in Colorado, lichens do not occur in abundance sufficient for culinary or arts & crafts projects. Excellent lichen communities often occur in parks, where collecting is prohibited. We recommend leaving them for others to enjoy—including the wildlife who depend on them.
Lichens have long been used by humans in many ways, including
- food and seasonings (one is used today, in an Indian spice mixture called kabul masala),
- dyestuffs (traditionally used to create the soft colors of Harris tweeds, for example),
- poisons (species of Letharia and Vulpicida have been used to poison wolves and foxes),
- perfume base (a secret ingredient in perfume formulas, also used in deodorants for their antibacterial properties),
- tinder and fuel,
- fiber (stuffing, textiles, and absorbents),
- decorations (for example, on tribal masks; also as shrubs in model railroad layouts)
- charms (religious, magic, rain, love, and good luck),
- log chinking,
- fermenting and brewing,
- animal feed (e.g., caribou in Lapland),
- medicinal (to cure syphilis, rabies, and snake bite, among others)
For a more exhaustive—and exhausting!—list of lichen use by humans and other animals, visit the definitive website Sharnoffphotos.com (formerly at Lichen.com).