Know Your Lichens: Episode 1- Lobaria Pulmonaria, The Lungs Of The Forest

Lichens are the forests ‘canary in the coal mine’. They are the new Lorax. They speak for the trees.

Lichen health is a close monitor of air quality, microclimate stability and other research indexes of biomes at risk from development and industrial activity. Biologists and environmental scientists are paying closer attention to their range and populations in an effort to understand and manage impacts on the wild. The introduction of Provincial Lichens is an effort to recognize this, NL’s lichens being Cladonia terrae novae and Cladonia labradorica. Cladonia is a large genus of over 275 species, including the misnamed fluffy white Caribou Moss that carpets Newfoundlands bogs and barrens and garnishes hipster plates at locavore restaurants (its real name is Cladonia rangiferina).

These fluffy, pale patches of ground on the Southside Hills are covered in a Cladonia species of lichen.

These fluffy, pale patches of ground on the Southside Hills are covered in a Cladonia species of lichen.

But not all lichens are created equal, and some are more sensitive to air quality degradation, changes in air’s moisture content and other early alarm signals than others. Alectoria sarmentosa or ‘Witches Hair’, a pale green fruticose arboreal ‘hair’ lichen, could probably hang off your cars exhaust pipe for a week and still live. Others, like the Usneas or beard lichens that Alectoria sarmentosa is often confused with, will vanish quickly from polluted landscapes, as was the case in Industrial Scotland in the age of coal. Happy ending though, tougher air pollution laws have brought Scotlands Usneas back.

Fruticose lichens include arboreal 'hair' lichens like those hanging off this tree in Pippy Park. Commonly found species belong to the genera Usnea, Alectoria and Bryoria.

Fruticose lichens include arboreal 'hair' lichens like those hanging off this tree in Pippy Park. Commonly found species belong to the genera Usnea, Alectoria and Bryoria.

One especially good Indicator Species of air quality is Lobaria pulmonaria. The genus Lobaria are often referred to as lung lichen/moss (the general confusion between mosses and lichens frustrates popular taxonomy) lungwort or tree lungwort. This originally referenced their scaly lobed appearance which was thought reminiscent of lungs, but now seems more prescient in their ability to monitor the forests ability to breathe. Paracelsus, physician, and alchemist during the German Renaissance, created something called the Doctrine of Signatures which suggested plants will cure organs they bear a resemblance to and thus Lobarias carry some unproven folk uses for respiratory ailments, though they have had some proven anti-inflammatory action in lab rats.

Lobaria pulmonaria shown both wet and dry, displayed around a hat and bow of wool dyed with the lichen.

Lobaria pulmonaria shown both wet and dry, displayed around a hat and bow of wool dyed with the lichen.

Most importantly, Lobaria pulmonaria can be used to brew beer. This was most famously done by some Siberian monks of the 17th and 18th century who used the lichen as a bittering agent.

Lobaria pulmonaria is also a good monitor of forest age, as it is often found in undisturbed, old growth forest. Like most lichens, it’s appearance varies greatly depending on whether it is wet or dry. Wet it looks almost like lizard textured ivy, bright green and foliose, while dry it is a shrivelled beige husk much like a recently shed snakeskin. Lobaria pulmonaria can be boiled in water and, with the addition of a little washing soda, create a beautiful dusty rose to salmon dye for wool, fur, and silk. As it is rare or threatened in many parts of the world, and declining universally, the only way to ethically harvest this lichen is when it is found on branches knocked off trees by high winds or tree maintenance. Even then, remember it plays an important role in fixing nitrogen on the forest floor, so don’t be greedy.