Saturday, 28 January 2017

Edible Plants for Preppers: Lichen (Chpt 15)

 Plants for Preppers by Amanda Rofe. £2.50 Amazon Kindle.

In light of the uncertainty facing the world these days, we have decided to publish a series of chapters from Edible Plants for Preppers. Available from Amazon Kindle for £2.50, it provides a lot of useful information for UK preppers on a vegan or plant-based diet. Please note, while it encourages food to be eaten uncooked, and in its natural state, it is not a raw food book.

Links to other chapters


There are around 20,000 species of lichen and they grow everywhere on the planet. Lichen are unusual and plant-like but are actually composed of an alga and a fungus living in a symbiotic relationship. Lichen are often the very first life form to grow in a barren place. They don't really need soil and can grow in very harsh sterile rocky areas. They grow spectacularly well in Arctic regions. As lichens grow on rocks they release organic acids and slowly etch away at the rock. Very slowly lichen will initiate soil formation setting the stage for something called primary succession. In time, when soil has been formed, other plants can move in.

Lichens are also an important food source for some animals. Caribou and reindeer use it as a food in harsh climates. Reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina), also known as caribou moss or reindeer lichen, is almost their sole source of nutrition during long winter months. Cladonia species is one of the most common lichen with the least amount of acid and prized by human and animals for a long time. It is clumpy and spongy like cummulus cloud and a greyish blue colour.

Humans have also used lichen for food and it has been eaten by many different cultures throughout the world. It has been used as a delicacy, as a staple food and as a survival food when food was scarce. In fact it was used in recent history during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995). The most used lichens were oak lichen (Evernia prunastri) and old man's beard (Usnea species) which were made into a porridge and a flour.

In Norway during the early 19th century, dried Iceland moss (Cetraria islandica) was made into a flour by soaking it in lye for 24 hours and then drying it. It was then blended with grain before being ground down into a flour. Unfermented flat breads or porridge were usually made from the flour.

The ancient Egyptians also used a lichen called oak moss (Evernia prunastri) in bread. This lichen is found widely in mountainous regions of the Northern Hemisphere growing primarily on trees.

In the British Isles one type of lichen which is edible is Icelandic moss (Cetraria islandica). The leaves are the edible parts and must be soaked and, possibly also boiled, to remove the bitterness. Historically, Icelandic moss has been used for herbal medicinal purposes and is strongly antibiotic. It has also been used as a cough and cancer remedy.

Most lichen will need some processing before it can be eaten due to the bitter flavour. The bitterness is due to large amounts of vulpinic and usnic acids. Some with a very high acid content such as wolf lichen (Letharia vulpina) can be toxic and shouldn't be eaten at all. This lichen is one of only two that are known to be inedible. The other one is powder sunshine lichen (Vulpicida pinastri). These two species are fairly easily identified because of their yellow colouring. Although they are toxic for internal use, they can be used externally and are particularly good for sores or wounds.

Lichen is very difficult to identify but most are pretty safe to eat. However, best to avoid the yellow ones and ensure they are prepared correctly. It is also important to remember that lichen can live for centuries so foraging must take place from pristine areas where no pollution has occurred at all. This probably doesn't apply to anywhere in the British Isles!

To prepare lichen it is generally necessary to soak it in numerous changes of water, usually with hardwood ash or bicarbonate of soda, to remove the acids. It is likely that the lichen will need to be boiled too, also with several changes of water. If lichen tastes like aspirin, then it hasn't been prepared correctly and shouldn't be eaten.

One method of preparing lichen (Cladonia and Alectoria species) that the aboriginal people in the Boreal region of North America used was to soften in hot water and then mix with other foods. Some lichen was actually eaten fresh straight from the trees and was said to be quite sweet. Other methods they used to prepare lichen included boiling, drying, fermenting and baking.

Lichens can also be difficult to digest because of the complex polysaccharides content. Local people who are well used to eating lichen are actually better at digesting it and there is evidence that the human body will adapt. However eating most lichen in its raw state will probably taste quite bad as well as inducing a bad stomach ache.