Lichen: Peltigera canina - Obsession nr. 1

Lichens have totally taken over my life for the moment.  They are so weird and different that it's hard not to be fascinated by them.  There isn't that much information around about lichen dyes and what little there is is often without latin names and that makes everything difficult.  I use latin names a lot although I realize that some people think that is very snobbish.  It isn't.  It's the only way to talk about specific plants without causing confusion.  I read about plants and dyeing in many languages and common names are very different from country to country and they tend to be quite arbitrary so that translating them is no help at all.

Lichens are totally different from other organisms and not much is understood about how they work. They may look like they are a single organism, but in fact they are two or more partners that form a symbiotic relationship. One of the partners is a fungus (mycobiont, for those who are interested) which makes the vegetative body of the lichen which houses the other partner, the photosynthetic (photobiont) one. The photosynthetic partner (there can be more than one) is usually green algae or cyanobacteria (cyano is from the greek kyanos=bluegreen) and it's funtion is to produce energy for itself and the fungal partner.  Cyanobacteria is quite well known to most soapers: Arthrospira platensis and A. maxima are the latin names of Spirulina which can be used to make green soaps.

There are about 13,500 species of lichen on the planet, but only 750 are found in Iceland.  Lichens are basically of 3 types:
  1. Foliose - which means that they are leaf like in their structure.
  2. Crustose - those are like a crust stuck to a surface and are usually very thin and tightly attached. These are about 75% of all lichens.
  3. Fruticose - these are branched structures.
One of the problems with lichens is that they can be very hard to identify, but at least it's fairly easy to classify them by the above and work from there.

Since lichens grow very, very slowly I am careful to harvest only common lichen that I find growing abundantly.  I have a rule of never taking more than 1% of any plant material that I collect and therefore I have no fear of collecting too aggressively.

I have known about lichens forever, as my parents taught us well and especially about the more unusual plants like lichen and moss, my fathers specialty.  But I wasn't all that interested in them although I remember noticing how many different species of moss and lichen can grow on one tree trunk in one of the last trips I took with my parents about a year before my father died.  He pointed it out to me and showed me how different things grew on different sides of the tree trunks as well as at different heights and on different tree species.

Peltigera canina isn't a particularly good dye plant.  So why did I write a post about it?  Well, about a year ago when I noticed this lichen growing on a rock in the woods on my evening walk with the dogs.  Something about it fascinated me, and I was hooked from then on.  I collected a little piece and took it home.  I was quick to identify it as the very common Peltigera canina.  It has been used as a medicinal plant to treat treat wounds, urinary disorders, thrush, tuberculosis, and rabies. I later found it growing simply everywhere in the woods and in many other places.  It is amazing how a whole new world opens up when we discover something new.  And what a wonderful world it is.

It will give a light yellow colour to wool and silk.  There are lichen that will give reds and purples, so yellow isn't all that special, but I love it anyway.  It's soft and natural and it goes well with many other colours.

I have been using Icelandic wool (Lopi) to dye, but for the lichens I decided to use alpaca wool.  It's so wonderfully soft that it's obscene.  I need something soft and warm for this winter.


  1. Amen for "soft and warm for this winter"! It's going to be a cold and long one here, judging by the amount of nuts that trees are putting out. Fascinating post as always, Ambra (while reading your last one I was nibbling on Wakame..or was it Dulce?) . I wonder about the dye qualities of lichen for soap? Getting ready to dig up some Rumex for that Ambra pink soap :)

  2. One thing I especially like in your posts is that you always use the latin names. That way it is so much easier to find the translation in finnish.

  3. I just got around to playing with some beautiful clays that the oh too generous Cocobong sent my way and now you are talking about coloring with Lichens. I wil never catch up with you people. Never, never, never...

  4. Cocobong, I'm ahead of you there :) I made soap from all my lichens and there are posts to follow.
    Heidi, I'm hoping more people will do this. It's not hard to find the latin names and it gives everyone a chance to find the same or similar plants in their own environment.
    Donna, clays! I haven't used those much. Have fun and post about it :)

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  6. Lichen and Moss really are fascinating - they are my favorite natural, wool-dyeing-things along with rhubarb.

  7. Such interesting posts you have, Ambra -very educational! I learn something every time. Thank You for that. :)

  8. I love Your posts. They are always so informative. And it is good, that You use the latin names. That makes things easier.


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