Foraging in the Forrest

Renewing my interest in natural dyeing, I came across some techniques using lichens and mushrooms that look promising. For one thing, lichens don’t require mordanting the yarn first, eliminating a step in the process. And with patience and the right knowledge lichens can yield many interesting colors, from yellows to pinks and purples. Alissa Allen has written extensively on the subject.

Lichens grow very very slowly. It’s recommended not to harvest them in their growing state due to the risk of depopulating an entire area of this important ecological organism. But around here, it’s been very windy and rainy as the ground thaws, knocking down branches and old bark. Lichens on fallen limbs will eventually die and decompose so they are generally considered fair game.

So, this afternoon Leo-the-well-behaved dog and I headed out in the wind and cold for a gather. The snow has nearly melted but the ground is still somewhat frozen, good footing for lichen hunting. You can see all the branches on the ground.

We found trees and rocks covered with lichen, fallen bark, and a small grove of ground lichen.

I decided that the best fallen specimens were OK to keep. Since the ground lichen was abundant, I picked about 2% of it to keep as well and will wait several years before harvesting any more (this stuff spreads every year on the hill just behind our house so I’m not too concerned about over-harvesting).

Next, to sort and identify.

Identifying lichens is tricky for a novice like me. The internet is a great but also contradictory resource. For example, searching Google Images yields photos of at least three different types of lichens that are all labeled as “staghorn lichen”. Many lichens of different species look quite similar to the untrained eye. If you are good at this please chime in in the comments and help me out!

To my untrained eye I gathered 4 types of lichens today. From the upper left, clockwise, I think they are:

1. A large mass of Cladonia Rangiferina, known as caribou or reindeer lichen (also inaccurately referred to as reindeer “moss”). This one is the least well-documented as a dye source (though apparently it’s used medicinally in some cultures). So I’m unsure of the color potential but apparently it does contain acidic compounds, which are what you’re after in any lichen-derived dye. I’ll have to test some small samples and see if it will yield any color. I did find one site that hinted at oranges and browns perhaps.

2. A small quantity of (I hope!) staghorn lichen, Evernia Prunastri. This has the most promising dye potential, and is known for releasing a violet color if processed with ammonia. The fermentation period is ideally several months, so I’m looking forward to working with this over the summer.

3. In the lower right and center of the picture are a few specimens of what I believe to be common green shield lichen, Flavoparmelia Caperata, which (if that’s what it is) may not yield any dyestuff at all, or only a very faint color. Still worth investigating if only to know to avoid gathering it in future.

4. Finally, a mixed lot of what I think are one or more varieties of other shield lichens, possibly Parmelia Sulcata. While these don’t give a strong color they are supposed to yield a clear yellow (not tinged with green as is common with flower-derived yellows). The method for this one is simple – cook in warm water for a couple hours to extract the dye, then add your wool to the pot and simmer until the color uptakes.

So it’s time for more research and some testing to see what I can get once the weather warms up. For the time being I’ll be drying and storing these lichens for use in a few months.

Published by Sarah Scully

Sarah is a librarian as well as an avid knitter and occasional knitwear designer. She also enjoys cooking, gardening, hiking, reading, painting, and writing with fountain pens.