Lichens are symbiotic composite organisms consisting of a fungus body within which live either single cell algae or cyanobacteria. This relationship, playing on the strengths of each, allows the organism to live in extremely harsh environments, from arctic tundra to dry deserts and on bare rock, though they are also abundant in temperate and rainforest environments. Lichens are used as food by many cultures around the world, sometimes as a survival essential and sometimes as a delicacy.

Live Lichens Iceland Moss   -   [Cetraria islandica of family Parmeliaceae]

Not actually a moss, and not confined to Iceland, though it is particularly lush there. It grows in Arctic and sub-Arctic environments all around the northern hemisphere, and much farther south in alpine regions. For a lichen, it has an unusually erect growth habit. It is eaten by various northern peoples, and it is also used medicinally. The photo specimen is from central Sweden.   Photo by Amphis contributed to the public domain.

Buying: This lichen, dried, is available for purchase on the Internet - but it isn't cheap.

Cooking:   This lichen was included in bread and used in porridges, puddings, soups, and salads. Dried lichen can be used as a substitute for other starches. It is not much used today except medicinally.

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Dried Lichens Dagad Phool   -   [Kalpasi, Phathar Ka Phool, Chadilo, Black Stone Flower; Parmelia perlata of family Parmeliaceae]

This lichen is considered essential for making Goda Masala, a curry powder used in the Marathi cuisine of Goa and Karnataka. Its flavor is considered very important to the cuisine of that region. The photo specimen is from India.

Buying: This lichen, dried, is available for purchase on the Internet. Some report having found it in Indian markets, but I haven't seen it in Artesia yet. The price is rather high. The photo purchase cost 2012 US $18 (including shipping) for 50 grams. (1-3/4 ounces). It is very light for its volume, so that 50 grams was 3 cups lightly packed.   Caution:   The name "Dagad Phool" means "stone flower" and is also used for star anise in parts of India. Be careful what you are buying.

Cooking:   Indian recipes I've found for Goda Masala don't give much of a hint (you're just supposed to know), so, until I learn better I'm presuming it is measured lightly crushed.

Lichens Reindeer moss   -   [Caribou moss, Reindeer lichen; Cladonia rangiferina - also - Cladonia portentosa of family Cladoniaceae]

These slow growing lichens are found in Arctic, sub-Arctic and alpine regions all around the northern hemisphere, and are extremely cold tolerant. They are the major food for the Sami's reindeer herds.

Cooking:   Herding peoples of the far north of North America and Siberia harvest reindeer lichen from the rumen (first stomach) of caribou (some disassembly required). This partially digested lichen is prepared as a traditional food. Alaskan inland people eat reindeer lichen directly after crushing and boiling it.   Photo by Verisimilus distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Dried Lichens Wila   -   [Bryoria fremontii of family Parmeliaceae]

This lichen grows in hair-like clumps from tree branches, but is not parasitic. It inhabits the Mountain West of North America from the south of Alaska almost to Southern California. Some also grows in Russia and northern Europe. It was an important food for Native Americans and is still occasionally eaten as a traditional food.

Harvesting:   This is usually done with a long pole with a hook on the end. Just stick it into the bunch, twist it around and pull it down. This lichen is not readily available commercially. Caution:   Some varieties of Wila, as well as very similar lichens, have a high content of toxic Vulpinic Acid. This acid is bright yellow, so it will give a yellowish tinge to lichen containing it. It is imperfectly soluble in water but can be reduced by long soaking, preferably in running water.

Cooking:   This is normally done along with root vegetables in a large pit with red hot rocks at the bottom and a fire on top, cooking for many hours to a few days. This method is not entirely practical in a modern kitchen, but some success has been reported using a slow cooker. Attempts to use a pressure cooker have been unsatisfactory.

Serving:   once cooked, the gelatinous Wila is formed into small loafs, which can be sliced and eaten as is, or dried for future use. Sugar or berries are often added to cooked Wila, because lichens tend to be slightly bitter. Dried Wila is sometimes crushed and used to make a porridge.   Photo by Millifolium distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Whole Lichen Rock Tripe   -   [Iwatake (Japan); Seogi (Korea); Umbilicaria esculenta of family Umbilicariaceae]

This lichen grows on rocks in East Asia, including Korea, China and Japan. It is is extremely slow growing, and all that was easily available has long ago been harvested. Harversters rappel down cliffs in wet weather (so it won't crumble) to gather it, with occasional fatalities. It is particularly favored in Japan, where an absurdly high price is the greatest known flavor enhancer.   Photo by Daderot contributed to the Public Domain.

Cooking:   It should be soaked long enough to have a gelatinous texture. In Korea it is often pan fried with pine nuts. In Japan it is prepared as tempura.

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