Yesterday I was helping to repair our old wooden fencing. As I held the section steady, I marveled at the quantity and variety of lichens that covered the wood and the surrounding rock surfaces. (It’s Maine. There are lots and lots of large rocks.)
Lichens are amazing but are often overlooked by casual nature explorers. They cover trees, rocks, and almost any undisturbed surface, including manufactured structures. Next time you look at an outside surface and see a dull-colored growth, it is likely to be some kind of lichen.
However, lichens are anything but dull. Their uniqueness begins with the fact that they are not a single entity, but rather a cooperative union between a fungus and algae or cyanobacteria.
The fungi depend on their partner to perform photosynthesis for them. The algae or cyanobacteria are protected from the environment by the fungi. Together, they form a powerful combination. For example, lichens can be found on every continent on earth, within any climate, or at any altitude. Although, they are typically not found in cities.
This post will explore some of the traditional uses of lichen. A subsequent post (or two) will look at more contemporary uses.
Uses as Diapers and Bandages
Some forms of lichens grow in long, string-like strands that can be found draped over the canopy of trees. These can understandably be misidentified as moss. However, they have a special property that moss does not offer. When harvested they can be woven into a low-grade absorbent cloth.
Native Americans have used this fiber for diapers and bandages for wound coverings. In the Northwest, folks used Witch’s Hair (Alectoria sarmentosa) for this purpose and in California, the Kashaya Pomo people used Lace Lichen (Ramalina menziesii).
I understand that there is also a type of lichen on the East Coast that was also used for this purpose. I wonder if any of the “green” diaper companies are using lichens as an ingredient in their product.
Uses In Religious Ceremonies
Some indigenous cultures have used lichen in their religious ceremonies. One such use was as part of the “rain-making bundle” of a Tübatulabal weather shaman who lived in the Sierra Nevada range of California.
A lichen known as Coyote’s Hair (Ramalina menziesii) was used as part of the rain-making bundle, along with other items such as quartz crystals, rawhide, and fish vertebra. To be effective, practitioners believed that the lichen needed to be taken directly from a tree. When the Coyote’s Hair was put into water, it would then rain. Other beliefs suggested that if you put the Coyote’s Hair into a fire, it would ward off thunder and lightning.
Accounts are unclear about how effective the bundle was in making it rain.
Other cultures also use lichen for spiritual practices. In Nepal, Thamnolia vermicularis lichen is used to ward off evil spirits and to maintain peace at home. A family will keep a bunch of it above the main entrance of the house. In other uses, some Sherpa and Lama people burn lichen powder as incense during morning prayer.
The more I learn about lichens, the more respect I have for the dual organism.
These two applications of lichen may not seem like a stretch. These, however, are just the beginning. Stay tuned for more!
More about Diapers and Bandages — https://www.pugetsound.edu/academics/academic-resources/slater-museum/exhibits/terrestrial-panel/witchs-hair/
Details about the Religious Ceremonies — https://www.jstor.org/stable/24644372?seq=1