Nfld. & Labrador

Newfoundland and Labrador is rediscovering its lichens

They're weird, they're all over the place and they're surprisingly useful.

These bizarre organisms, which are neither plant nor fungi, can be used to make vibrant dyes

An unknown lichen spreads across a grave stone. (Provided by Felicity Roberts)

Despite their reputation as little more than slimy vegetables, fungi are not plants.

Plants are autotrophs, producing their own food from sunlight, while fungi and animals are heterotrophs, seeking nourishment from organic matter in their environment.

Lichens are a kind of mix between the two. They aren't made of a single organism — most lichens consist of algae sandwiched between layers of fungi. In a symbiosis formed over four hundred million years ago, the fungus provides protection while the algae photosynthesizes food. 

Lichen are best gathered from downed branches and not from healthy trees. (Provided by Felicity Roberts)

Newfoundland's lichens range from arctic species to some found in the Peruvian cloud forest. Right now, efforts are underway to conserve the endangered boreal felt lichen, 95 per cent of which which grow in Newfoundland, mostly in the central Avalon Peninsula area and in Bay D'Espoir. 

Rediscovering our lichen

Around the world, lichens have been used as food, medicine, dye, and even to distil alcohol when grain is scarce.

Here in the province, as interest in traditional knowledge grows, we're rediscovering our own lichens.

Felicity Roberts is wearing a hat she dyed with lichen. (Provided by Felicity Roberts)

Raymonds and Merchant Tavern serve the misleadingly named Caribou Moss, which is actually a lichen, as does the Fogo Island Inn. And herbalists are investigating lichen's antibiotic potential.

Meet the crottles

The Newfoundland Dictionary of English defines the word "mollyfodge" as lichen on rocks and trees used to make dye, a dark chocolate brown in colour and popular for hooked rugs, with mention of the lichen also being smoked in a pipe. These lichen are known as the crottles.

Crottles were used to dye this wool and these mittens. (Provided by Felcility Roberts)

Crottles are easy picking in Newfoundland. Called "salvage botany," collecting the downed branches covered in lichens that litter the ground after heavy winds is a sustainable harvesting method that seems tailor-made for the local climate.

Useful lichens consist of a mix of foliose, or leafy-looking, lichens and fruticose, or coral-like, lichens. They're often found on the same branch.

A single branch is weighted by several types of crottles. (Provided by Felicity Roberts)

They can be boiled to achieve a rich brown or mustard dye bath that becomes bright yellow, soft peach or deep rust with tweaks of the pH.

Fuchsia, plum and ruby

Most prized for dye are the orchil lichens, a minority of lichens that, when fermented in an ammonia solution for three weeks to three months, produce shocking jewel tones of fuchsia, plum and ruby. 

The string on the left was dyed with crottles, the string on the right with orchil lichen. (Felicity Roberts/Facebook)

These slow-growing lichen often appear as a dark, nearly black crust on rocks and cement.

Scraping it off those rocks is generally discouraged — I gather it cautiously at a rate of less than 10 per cent per rock, and reuse the potent dye pots several times before the pigment is exhausted. These dyes are for small, special projects, and I often use them to dye leather and fur.

The string and seal fur have been dyed with orchil lichen. (Provided by Felicity Roberts)

The ammonia fermentation period is long but relaxing. The lichen sits in a corner while chemistry does the work. When the dye looks like grape juice, it's good to go.

Always take care

Always take care harvesting any lichen. These strange and wonderful organisms are precious and play an important role in our wild environments. Highly sensitive to pollution, their health and proliferation reflect the ecosystem's well being.

These black, crusty orchil lichens can yield dyes of bright, vivid reds and purples. (Provided by Felicity Roberts)

Lorax-like in their ability to speak for the trees, the same fascinating chemistry that produces powerful dyes promises other great lichen discoveries in the future.