The Hidden World of Lichen: A Surprisingly Gastronomic History

When I picture what extraterrestrial life would look like, I imagine that it would look quite similar to the many eccentric presentations of lichen. It can take on numerous forms and colours; sometimes vaguely plant-like, at other times reminiscent of a mould or coral. I’ve always loved finding lichen on walks, picking up colourful encrusted twigs from the forest floor to take a closer look. However, I didn’t know very much about it at all until recently, mostly thanks to Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life, which spends considerable time delving into the mysterious inner workings of these strange organisms.

Lately, in classic Baader-Meinhof fashion, I’ve started seeing lichen absolutely everywhere. I was looking down at the pavement and noticing hundreds of circular patches that looked a bit like pieces of colourful chewing gum flattened into the ground. Upon closer inspection, I was chuffed to find that there were several species of lichen flourishing on the paving stones, so I took out my phone and tried to get some decent photos.

Virtual high-five to all the other fungi/plant/bug lovers out there who are constantly seeing interesting things on the ground and must take photos of all their observations, much to the vexation of their walking buddies!

I’m sure that I’ve seen these types of lichen in everyday places before, but on a whole they must have escaped my notice. It’s the same with mushrooms and other fungal fruit bodies; I’d always found them fascinating when I’d come across them on occasion, but it was only when I started really looking out for them a few years ago that I realised how ubiquitous they actually are.

When I crouched down, I was impressed to see that the lichens had structures that were discernible to the naked eye – from afar, they looked quite unremarkable. There’s something very satisfying about being able to see the tiny details of a miniature world. Bear in mind that these images were only captured on my outdated phone – check out macro photography of lichen and slime moulds if you want your mind to really be blown.

What is lichen?

Not quite a fungus, and not a plant. Lichens are composite organisms that form as a result of a weird but wonderful living arrangement between unlikely partners: a fungus or mycobiont and one or more photobionts capable of photosynthesis, in this case, algae and/or cyanobacteria. You can think of it this way: the fungus provides a cozy little abode with walls, roof, and floor (the “body” of the lichen) while the while the photobionts bring in the groceries by producing food through photosynthesis.

It’s a symbiotic relationship that benefits both partners – the fungus gets food and the algae or cyanobacteria get a safe place to live and sometimes access to mineral nutrients provided by rock-digesting fungal partners. This is a vastly simplified explanation but it gives you an idea of how and why lichens have come to exist.

Lichen as food?

During a new year’s eve walk at Cragside with some friends last year, we saw an abundance of lichen. Luckily, one of my friends is just as excited about lichen as I am, so I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm this time.

I jokingly said that there are probably some edible lichens and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes the next big “superfood” or expensive supplement. It’s not much of a stretch given how many wild plants and fungi have been discovered to have medicinal properties. When I got home, out of curiosity I consulted Google. It turns out that not only are many lichens technically edible (like most things, there are still some poisonous species, so beware), I was impressed to learn that some lichens are even considered to be somewhat of a delicacy. For instance, the lichen species Parmotrema perlatum is used as a spice in India, known as Kalpasi. I haven’t been able to find much in the way of a specific description of the flavour profile of this lichen except that it brings an umami depth to dishes. This sounds like something I can get behind!

For the Limbu, indigenous people of the Himalayan region of eastern Nepal, edible lichen is an essential ingredient in traditional cooking. Known as yangben, there are three species that are used in food Everniastrum cirrhatumEverniastrum nepalense, and Parmotrema cetratum. Pork and yangben are a popular combo, the latter imparting an earthy richness to the food. Unfortunately, these lichens are becoming scarcer, possibly due to a combination of increased popularity leading to over-harvesting and disturbance of habitat from road vehicles.

Over in northern Europe and Scandinavia, folks have been chowing down on Cetraria islandica, commonly known as Iceland moss (although it’s not a moss – moss is actually not related to lichen despite commonly being found in similar environments) or as fjallagrös to Icelanders, for centuries. The first recorded mention of Iceland moss usage is in the 13th century book of laws Jónsbók in the year 1281, where it expressly prohibited moss hunters from trespassing onto other people’s land to get their fix. Who knew a lichen could cause so much drama?

Iceland moss is a versatile ingredient that has historically been used in a wide range of dishes, such as breads, porridges, soups, salads, even puddings. The high starch content made it useful for bulking out flour for bread making in times of scarcity. In fact, in the late 18th through to the 19th century, it was promoted as an effective famine food in not only Iceland, but also Finland, Sweden, Germany, Russia and France. During this time, botanists and economists published booklets with recipes such as bread, gruel, and pancakes, based on traditional Icelandic culinary usage.

Photo of Iceland moss courtesy of Jan Feduck. You can find more information about the culinary uses of Iceland moss on her website

Iceland moss is far from a culinary curio of a bygone era. It’s still possible to buy bread made with fjallagrös and try Iceland moss tea in some Icelandic cafes and restaurants. What’s more, renewed interest in traditional, natural ingredients and nutrition has also spurred on studies into the benefits of Iceland moss. In folk medicine, it has been used as a remedy for respiratory diseases, skin wounds, and digestive issues amongst many other ailments. Modern science has since revealed that there is indeed truth in the old beliefs, with studies demonstrating consistent evidence for antimicrobial, antioxidant, even anti-cancer and anti-diabetic properties.

Much more research needs to be done to discover the full medicinal potential of the lichen, but it sounds promising so far. Looks like I was right on the money when I made that off-hand comment about lichen as the next big thing in the health food world, huh? However, given the slow rate of growth of ground lichens like Cetraria islandica (we’re talking around 0.5cm per year), it probably isn’t going to be mainstream anytime soon unless we figure out a reliable method for cultivation, which is proving to be pretty tricky. Still, it’s not impossible!

These are only a handful of notable examples, but there’s no doubt that the humble lichen has played a remarkable role in human history. It has been used as medicine, as a vital source of nourishment during times of famine and even for delivering flavourful culinary experiences. So, the next time you’re out on a stroll, don’t forget to take a closer look at the ground beneath your feet and appreciate the miniature world that surrounds you. You never know, you might stumble upon the subject of the next big breakthrough in medical science, right there on the pavement. Or at the very least, you’ll impress your friends the next time you see them with your newfound knowledge of lichen. Happy exploring!





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