Before pulling this list together, I would have never guessed at all of the commercial and industrial applications for the diminutive lichen.  Today, let’s explore these starting with lunch.  

Lichen as Haute Cuisine 

Most lichens are non-poisonous but can you imagine eating them as an ingredient in high-end cooking? 

Chef Rene Redzepi used interesting local ingredients such as lichen to propel his restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen, to stardom. Although Noma closed a few years ago, several other restaurants have attempted similar exotic fare. 

In the Yunnan Province of China, there are at least 5 different species of lichens that are used as foods, including ones added to stir-fry pork and one that is part of a cold dish served at wedding banquets to symbolize a long and happy marriage. 

Please pass the fermented tree lichen.  

Now, for that tickle in your throat…

Lichen as a Medication

If you have a dry, scratchy, or sore throat, you may want to reach for some Icelandic Moss (Cetraria islandica), which is a lichen despite its name.  Use this as a throat lozenge.  Studies have shown that it is effective in relieving inflammation from simple throat infections.

The medical benefits don’t stop there. Clinical studies show that a specific acid isolated from Evernia mesomorpha, commonly known as Boreal Oakmoss Lichen, works against some nasty bacteria. It may even be effective against MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infections.  MRSA is a type of infection that is resistant to many types of antibiotics and has become deadly in some cases.  Yet, lichen can best it.  

There appear to be a lot more potential medical applications waiting to be discovered. I’m somehow not surprised.

Next, lichen can color your world…

 Lichen as a Dye

Despite their generally muted color palate when dry, lichens can be used to produce a wide range of dyes, including yellow, red, and even purple. The process involves adding a bit of ammonia as a catalyst. In some recipes, this means using human urine.  Other ingredients include saltpeter and arsenic. That recipe from the 16th century is definitely not for the fainthearted. 

Several centuries later, workers from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, used lichens as their color source when dying their famous Harris Tweed fabric. Locals used a crotal lichen (Xanthoria parietina) as the source for the vibrant orange color.  The crotal lichen is now a protected species and is no longer used in the process.  However, its legacy lives on in the beautiful fabric. 

Apparently, lichen doesn’t just help you look good, but it contributes to your smelling good too…

Lichen as a Perfume

The perfume industry combines both natural and synthetic ingredients to create sensual experiences.   Two of its key natural ingredients are the Oakmoss lichen (Evernia prunastri), which is found on its namesake Oak trees, and the Treemoss lichen (Pseudevernia furfuracea) which grows on pine and cedar. 

In 2009, about 700 tons of oakmoss were used by French perfumeries. It is highly ranked among the favorite scents of those who create fragrances.  Oakmoss adds a bit of a woodsy note. 

However, there is a small problem: It has recently been blacklisted by the International Fragrance Association as a potential irritant.  The industry has been scrambling to find an acceptable substitute for this critical component.  So far, they have not found a suitably smelling replacement. 

If these applications push the boundaries of your expectations, wait until the final installment!  Those will really stretch your imagination. 

Sources:

Original articles about lichen used as food — https://www.eater.com/2010/11/24/6708763/us-chefs-follow-rene-redzepi-into-the-woods

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232664331_Ethnic_Uses_of_Lichens_in_Yunnan_China

Journal publications about uses as medication — https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9213408/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6320781/

Publications about uses as a dye — https://www.anbg.gov.au/lichen/lichens-people-dyeing.html

Publications about uses as perfume — https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/ffj.1916

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