Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history

Changing knowledge, changing attitudes: lichen dyeing


Because it looks like the inside tissue of human lungs, the lichen  Lobaria pulmonaria  (also known as Lungwort) was once commonly used in the treatment of chest infections. The historic rationale of using herbs that resemble parts of the body to treat illnesses of those parts of the body is called ‘the doctrine of signatures’. According to Wikipedia,  a theological justification was made for this philosophy in Christian European metaphysics: It was reasoned that the Almighty must have set his sign upon the various means of curing disease which he provided. The ‘signature’ on the plant was that of God, as a means of guiding the healer’s hand.

The substances in lichens used for both medicines and dye are normally acids; each lichen species can contain several types. The Wikipedia article (linked above) contains contemporary references to possible medicinal uses for  L. pulmonaria, which has indeed been found to have anti-inflammatory and ulcer-preventing properties. So, perhaps it did assist in the treatment of chest infections. When I was in Ecuador I saw usnea lichens sold  for the treatment of sore throats.

I took a serious interest in lichens when I began to study the orchil trade five years ago. You can read how it all came about here. Back then I joined a one-off lichen study walk, arranged by the local branch of the British Lichen Society (BLS). On the walk we were shown L. pulmonaria growing on just one ancient oak; the presence and abundance (or not) of this particular lichen is considered an indicator of forest age as it is normally found only in ancient woodland. It has been badly affected by habitat loss and pollution and according to Dominique Cardon, in many European countries it is a Red Data Book lichen.*  Those of us on the lichen walk were asked not to broadcast the precise location of this rare specimen, but as the BLS  Lobarion Interactive Map reveals L. pulmonaria  at Rosemoor, I can confirm that’s where I saw it – without incurring enduring wrath from the BLS.

In 1960, Eileen M. Bolton published a little handbook for handweavers called Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing.** The book is no less than a classic. It is scholarly from botanic and chemical perspective and it’s also beautiful. It is illustrated with Eileen Bolton’s carefully observed drawings and paintings with several lichens appearing on the same page along with snails, butterflies and curling fronds of ferns or flowers. Through these she shows a thorough knowledge, love and and respect for lichens, and her text includes comments relevant to the US as well as Europe. She makes no general statement on the wisdom and ethics of gathering lichen although she does advocate taking only a little of the L. pulmonaria ‘as it takes years to grow, and forestry operations are likely to make the plant even more scarce.’ She also refers to some species as being ‘less plentiful’.

In 1991 the book*** was reissued in the US due to the efforts of Karen Diadick Casselman. The fascinating story of Eileen Bolton, her family, and tracking down the copyright to her 1960 book, is told in the preface. I strongly recommend reading the preface but the whole book is available to read online here where you can also see Eileen Bolton’s illustrations. The re-issued book was updated to included the status of rare and potentially endangered lichens; L pulmonaria is noted to be endangered in Britain by 1991.

Ten years later, Karen Diadick Casselman’s 2001 book**** on lichen dyes is prefaced by two pages on the ethical approach to dyeing, a useful chapter  on ethics and identification, and an epilogue which briefly exposes some conflicting attitudes and raises questions that potential lichen dyers might consider. I would just add this: I have learned a little through  my contact with mycologists while researching orchil and one of these is the utter complexity of lichen reproduction. It still isn’t properly understood. It isn’t known that a ‘windfall’  lichen can no longer reproduce, or for how long it might reproduce once fallen.  Gathering windfall lichen seems less of a wise move than once it did unless you are actually rescuing it from the bonfire. I now place windfalls back into the crevices of trees.

Last but not least: the pronunciation issue

Is it lichens (to rhyme with kitchens) or lichens (sounds like likens)? I have always said lichens to rhyme with kitchens. Maybe it’s a generation thing in the UK. I am not sure about pronunciation in the US (I’d like to hear from you!) but I think the likens pronunciation is more common. At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where I have worked with mycologists, they also say ‘likens’. But they also say I am not wrong, and as I have no intention of changing at my age, that’s just as well.

Books referred to in this post

*Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science; Dominique Cardon; Archetype Publications; 2007; p 518-9

** Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing; Eileen M. Bolton; Studio Books 1960

*** Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing; Eileen M. Bolton; second edition edited by Karen Leigh Casselman and Julia Bolton Holloway; Robin and Russ Handweavers 1991

**** Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book; Karen Diadick Casselman; Dover Publications 2001

6 thoughts on “Changing knowledge, changing attitudes: lichen dyeing


    Great post, Isabella!

    You would enjoy the work on lichens by Irwin Brodo of the Canadian Museum of Nature. He is their lichen guy. (Last time I took his book from the library, I found that some scumbag had cut out the page on dyeing with lichens…doesn’t that make you want to vote for the death penalty?)

    Also, “Dyes from Lichens and Plants: A Canadian Dyer’s Guide” by Judy Waldner McGrath – a lovely narrative of life in the Great White North as well as a comprehensive guide to dyeing with lichens and other northern tundra plants. The author taught her Innuit women neighbours and friends about dyes from local plants, a knowledge set that astonished and enchanted them. I happened to have taken the book from the library as your post came in.

    I have dyed with lichens found on the forest floor in the Savannah, South Carolina area…honestly, I do not think it is endangered there…thick carpets of it fallen from trees…I got a cinnamon colour on silk from it …I made the colour shift a tad with iron

    Keep those posts coming please.


  2. Hi Wendy,

    Thank you for the Brodo link. I am now wondering if the page was removed by a guerilla lichen activist disapproving of dyeing with lichen, or a dyer who couldn’t be bothered to make a photocopy. Either way, I think an Orchillian punishment of three weeks steeped in stale urine – with regular oxygenating shakes – would do the trick. The McGrath book looks relatively unattainable here although I have seen expensive secondhand copies listed. I’ll have a look for it next time I am at Kew.

    I know there are many ways of viewing dyeing with lichen and I *try* not to pontificate – after all, I had to learn how to dye with orchil from someone who uses it, and was prepared to teach me. I have just made the choice not to use lichen in my own studio work, especially the orchils, which are in any case so light fugitive.

    By the way, I had at one point written into my post that Lobaria pulmonaria was used to dye woollens brown and was also dyed in combination with indigo to create good black dyes. But somehow I edited it out.

    Thanks again

  3. I too, have chosen not to use lichens in my natural dye work. In southern Maine where I live I never find enough in any one spot to responsibly harvest them which indicates to me that they need to stay right where they are!

  4. You achieve a beautiful range of natural colours on your alpaca. I have just been to have a look at your site and I like the Ethel Mairet quote. Thanks for contributing.

  5. Like you, I’ve always said ‘lichen’ not ‘liken’. It was the accepted vernacular use in the old days. I remember’liken’ gaining ascendency in the late ’60s I think. At that time, the great David Attenborough got himself tangled between the two, probably feeling that he should adopt the vogue pronounciation. I got confused and remember later asking a linguist I much respected, who told me that ‘lichen’ was correct, and I’ve carried on using that pronounciation. My daughter, who you met at Rosemoor, is an actress and survives when ‘resting’ by reading audio books, mostly for the RNIB. She has been corrected and asked to say ‘liken’, Emma investigated and claims that since it has a Greek etymology ‘liken’ is more likely correct. Although I’m still confused, I’ll continue with good old ‘lichen’, it sounds more British don’t you know. The other one which changes is ‘kephalopod’ and ‘sephalopod’ for cephalopod. Thanks for a most interesting post.

  6. Thanks Richard (pronounced Rye-card, I suppose, if we are into the Greek stuff)

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