Lichens: A Survival Food That’s Probably Growing in Your Backyard

Lichens are a common wild edible, but if you’re not paying attention you might miss them. They usually grow on trees and rocks and have a distinctive appearance similar to a flat, leafy plant. However, they are a unique form of plant related to the algae family. What makes lichens unique is that most algae require fresh water or salt water to survive and thrive. Lichens are a terrestrial form of algae.

Lichens have been on Earth for billions of years and are one of the oldest forms of life on the plant. Equally surprising is the fact that some lichens can be hundreds if not thousands of years old. These elder lichens typically grow on rocks, boulders and cliff faces. Lichens that grow on trees are never older than the tree itself but even then, some trees live for hundreds of years.

Here’s the dictionary definition of a lichen according to the U.S. Forest Service:

Lichens are dual organisms consisting of a fungus and an alga or a cyanobacterium. The fungus provides the alga with structure, protection, nutrients, and water absorbed from the atmosphere and the substrate (e.g., soil, rotten logs, tree branches). In return, the alga provides carbohydrates from photosynthesis to the fungus. Algae from some lichens grow independently of the fungus, but in lichen form, the algae can inhabit more challenging environments than when growing alone.

Lichen Edibility versus Lichen Toxicity

There’s good news in lichen land. Out of the 20,000 or more species that grow across North America, only a few lichens are truly toxic. This is in stark contrast to wild mushrooms. Out of the 10,000 species of wild mushrooms across the North American continent, 96% of them are toxic with 4% of that number falling into the poisonous and deadly category. That means only 400 out of 10,000 wild mushrooms are safe to eat.

Lichens are largely benign and won’t harm you, but there are few to watch out for. Any lichens that have a yellowish or orange color are toxic to varying degrees.

The two most toxic examples include Vulpacida pinastri and the other is called Letharia vulpina. Their common names are the Powdered Sunshine Lichen and the Wolf Lichen. If you’re not an expert on all lichen identification, just play it safe and stay away from the yellow and orange ones.

So, What’s a Good Lichen Look Like?

Good lichens that are safe to eat have a bluish to blue/green color. They can appear with all shades of these colors:

harvesting lichens

Unfortunately, even some of these safe-to-eat lichens can be surrounded by the toxic, yellow and orange lichens.

Basic Lichen Identification

Lichens fall into one of three broad categories defined by their shape and appearance according to the U.S. Forest Service:

1. Foliose (leaf-like)

Image via U.S. Forest Service

2. Fruticose (shrub-like)

Image via U.S. Forest Service

3. Crustose (growing closely attached to a surface)

lichens type

Image via U.S. Forest Service

Who Would Eat a Lichen?

You might be surprised by the answer to that question. Certainly, people in a wilderness survival situation would consider lichens as part of their survival menu, but it goes well beyond that.

Chef René Redzepi of the Noma restaurant in Copenhagen features lichens as a central part of his cuisine. In case you don’t know, Chef Redzepi is considered to be the top chef in the world by numerous publications and culinary organizations. If lichens are good enough for the best chef in the world, they’re good enough for the rest of us.

Lichens are particularly important in a wilderness survival situation. They are a year-round source of food 365 days a year. While lichens alone won’t sustain you in a survival situation, they should definitely be a part of your wilderness menu.

What Does a Lichen Taste Like?

A raw lichen right off the tree or rock will have the consistency of a rubber inner-tube and many will taste highly acidic if not down-right astringent. That’s not very encouraging, but there are some simple steps to make lichens palatable.

The first step is to soak the lichens in vinegar for 30 minutes. Vinegar is a powerful antiseptic and most lichens have had years and years to accumulate all matter of debris, microbes, and dust carried on the winds.

The second step is to soak the lichens in numerous water changes. They’re usually immersed in a bowl of cold water and held down with a plate. After 6 hours the water is changed, and this is repeated until a little nibble doesn’t taste bitter. A tablespoon of baking soda can also be added to neutralize the acids.

The third step is to boil and shock the lichens. The lichens are gently boiled in water for 10 minutes and then removed with a slotted spoon to a bowl of ice water. The result is prepped lichens that are ready to eat as an ingredient in a soup, a topping for a wild green salad of dandelion and plantain leaves, tossed over pasta, or even quickly deep-fried for lichen chips. We’ll cover some of these recipes later in this article.

Another approach is a Japanese technique which involves gently boiling them with frequent water changes. This will result in a lichen that is quite gelatinous. In case you’re wondering, “gelatinous” means slimy similar to the slime you see when you boil okra or cactus. In fact, a little lichen boiled in a broth will yield a hearty and velvety soup with a texture approaching a gravy.

Many people in Africa, Native Americans, and our pioneer ancestors used lichens as a thickening agent for a variety of foods. Pioneers used the gelatin from lichens to thicken not only soups but as a replacement for gelatin in jams and jellies.

The Scandinavians soak and dry lichens and grind them into a flour to be added to wheat flour or pine bark flour for baking.

In a survival situation, you may have limited resources and boiling lichens in water may be as ambitious as you can get.

Harvesting Lichens

Tools for lichen collecting include two types of knives. A sharp knife like a buck knife and a serrated knife for sawing through bark for a well-entrenched lichen. A one-gallon plastic ziplock bag or two for carrying your lichens and garden gloves is also important. In a survival situation, you can just pull them off the tree, but you might tear more than a few if you don’t have a knife to cut them off at the base.

Older trees present the most lichens, and remember to look both at the base and above your head. To remove a lichen, gently grab the lichen by the edges and use your knife to find the root attached to the tree and cut. You’ll probably get some bits of bark and they should be carefully removed when harvesting and again after soaking in water.

Lichen on rocks are easier to remove but you may still need a knife to cut it loose. You also want to make sure you scrape away any bits of rock or sand from the back of the lichen. If you’ve ever eaten a sandy sandwich on the beach, you’ll be sure to make sure any grit is gone.

In a survival situation, you may only have water or at least boiling water to prepare any lichen. In this case, look for lichens growing on a tree and ideally under a large, over-hanging branch. It may have had less exposure to the elements in this kind of environment as opposed to lichens growing on rocks.

Lichen Nutrition Facts

You may be surprised to learn that lichens are loaded with nutrients, minerals, and micronutrients. Lichens offer many of the benefits of a form of algae known as “spirulina.” Lichens also present vitamins like Vitamin-K, Vitamin-C, carbohydrates, and a decent calorie count based on size.

Adding lichens to your other survival food gathering, like the internal layers of tree-bark, is a good idea, especially when you consider that so many lichens grow on the external bark of trees.


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