Thanks to the excessive amounts of moisture on the west side of the Cascades, Washington is a great place to find and learn about lichens. Many might not realize that lichens are fungi, but they are! In fact, lichens are the product of a symbiotic relationship between a fungi and green algae and/or cyanobacteria. The fungi provides a home and protection, while the “green stuff” provides nutrients via photosynthesis.
Today we’ll be talking about one particular local lichen, Lobaria pulmonaria.
It’s commonly known by a whole bunch of names, including lungwort, oak lungs, lung lichen, and so forth. An obvious trend emerges. Because its shape somewhat resembles the tissue inside lungs, it was thought to be a remedy for lung diseases, along with asthma, urinary incontinence, hemorrhages, eczema, and lack of appetite. Some in Italy may have even used it as an antiseptic. These lichens do contain many compounds associated with medical benefits, and modern research does suggest that they at least possess anti-inflammatory properties.
However, the most common use for L. pulmonaria I have seen in the current fungal community is for dye. L. pulmonaria, when simmered with wool for some time, will dye the wool a lovely orangey-brown color:
Unfortunately, it does take a good amount of the lichen to achieve nicely saturated colors. Most lichen grow incredibly slowly. For this reason, care should always be taken not to destroy or too frequently harvest any lichen. Furthermore, L. pulmonaria is incredibly sensitive to air quality and has been negatively affected by habitat loss. If you are interested in trying to use this lichen, please take care to only harvest specimens that have fallen on the ground and never remove them from trees. And use what you take!