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Lichens of North America Traditional and Modern Uses.

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Witch's hair" (Alectoria sarmentosa) on a western hemlock near Juneau, Alaska. In the winter when other forage is buried under snow, white-tailed deer in the Northwest eat witch's hair that has blown down from the treetops during storms.

This lichen was valued as fiber in traditional cultures in the Northwest. It was used as bandages, baby diapers, feminine hygiene supplies, and even as raw material for ponchos and footwear (Lillooet). It made good artifical hair for decorating dance masks.


Bryoria fremontii(sometimes called "tree hair lichen", "black tree lichen", or "edible horsehair") on larch (Laryx) in eastern Washington.

This is the most widely used edible lichen in North America. In some traditional societies it was a delicacy, and in others it was a famine food.

The NLaka'pamux (Thompson Indians) and the Lillooet peoples in British Columbia made shoes and clothes from this rather impractical material. There is Bryoria clothing on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago. A few groups used this lichen medicinally: the Okanagan-Colville mixed dried lichen with grease and rubbed it on the navels of newborn babies; the Nez Perce used it to treat digestive troubles; and the Atsugewi (Pit River) applied it as a poultice to reduce swellings.

It is eaten in winter by large ungulates, from woodland caribou to deer, and, in the forests east of the Cascades, it is used by the northern flying squirrel for food and nesting material.


Cetraria islandicasubspeciescrispiformis, one of the two subspecies of "true Iceland lichen", on mossy soil. Portage Creek, near Anchorage, Alaska. Cetraria islandica was used in Scandinavia as a famine food and also as a bread additive. It was used widely as an herbal medicine for various ailments and as a tonic.


Cladina stellaris, or "star-tipped reindeer lichen" among talus boulders, northern Maine. In the form of fermented caribou stomach contents, this lichen was a favorite food in traditional cultures of far-northern North America. It was eaten fresh, and fed to dogs, in times of famine. The Woods Cree (Nihithawak) used it as a treatment for intestinal parasites.

This lichen species is probably the single most important food source for caribou and reindeer, especially in winter.


"Oakmoss lichen" (Everniaprunastri) on a an oak twig, northwestern California. This species is harvested commercially in south-central Europe, and then sent to France where it is used in the manufacture of fine perfumes. The lichen acts as a fixative for other scents, and also adds a subtle herbal fragrance of its own.


Letharia vulpina ("wolf lichen") on incense cedar bark, western slope of the Sierra Nevada, California. This was the most widely used dye lichen for indigenous peoples in western North America, used from the Rockies to the Pacific coast, from California to Alaska. Some groups also made paint from it.

This lichen is sufficiently poisonous that the Achomawi in Northern California used it to make poison arrowheads, but the Okanagan-Colville made a weak tea of it to treat internal problems, and it was a Blackfoot remedy for stomach disorders.


"Lungwort", or "lung lichen" (Lobaria pulmonaria) on a sugar maple (Acer saccharum) in New Brunswick. This lichen is used in Britain as an indicator of undisturbed ecosystems.

Lobaria pulmonaria reminded medieval European healers of lung tissue, and they took this as a sign that it was a remedy for lung ailments. The Hesquiat people of British Columbia used it as a treatment for coughing up blood, and it was also used for lung troubles in Darjeeling and Sikkim.

Lobaria pulmonaria was used at a Siberian monastery long ago in brewing a bitter beer.


"Powdered ruffle lichen" (Parmotrema chinense) on toyon bark, Santa Cruz Island, off of the coast of southern California. This lichen is used medicinally in India as a poultice to induce copious urination, as a linament and an incense for headaches, and also as a powder to help wounds heal. Taken internally, it has a variety of properties to treat many ailments.


Pseudocyphellaria crocata on a branch of manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.) on the coast of Oregon. The yellow powdery spots are soralia, where balls of algae wrapped in fungal threads are produced--a non-sexual means of reproduction. This lichen is a source of brown dye for wool.


Rimelia reticulata, one of the "cracked ruffle lichens", on hardwood bark, southern Mississippi. This lichen is a traditional ingredient in the Indian spice mixture, Kabul Garam Masala.

The Tepehuan of Chihuahua, Mexico, used this lichen in a tea to relieve discomfort from kidney disorders or venereal disease


Thamnolia vermicularis, the "whiteworm lichen", on alpine soil, northwestern Washington. The golden plover uses this lichen as nesting material.


Usnea fillipendula ("fishbone beard lichen") on a spruce trunk, north shore of Lake Superior, Ontario.

Species of Usnea contain usnic acid, which has well documented antibiotic properties. Usnea has been used medicinally since ancient times (in Greece and China at least) and throughout the world, except, apparently, in Australia.


Usnea longissima, or "Methuselah's beard lichen", hanging from a Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) in the Oregon Cascades. This is easily the longest lichen in the world.

It is extremely sensitive to air pollution and has vanished from most of Europe. Even in the Pacific Northwest, where one occasionally sees good stands of it, it has strict habitat requirements, is slow to grow or to spread, and it should never be collected.

Usnea longissima was used for bedding and pillow stuffing in places as far apart as the Simla Hills of India and British Columbia, Canada, and it may have been the original Christmas tree tinsel.

With names translating as "pine gauze" and "Lao-tzu's beard," it was described in the earliest Chinese herbal, from about 500 A.D.


Xanthoparmelia chlorochroa ("tumbleweed shield lichen") on sandy soil, northwestern New Mexico. This lichen continues to be an important dye source for Navajo weavers. The Navajo also used it as a remedy for impetigo. It is a "vagrant" lichen, not attached to any substrate.


Xanthoria parietina ("maritime sunburst lichen") on a marble gravestone, near the coast of Maine. Medieval healers took the color of this lichen as a sign that it was a remedy for jaundice. It is a folk remedy for kidney disorders and several other ailments in parts of Andalucia, Spain. It grows near both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but not inland.