Lichen Dye Photos

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Economic Plant Photographs #5

Lichen Dyes and Perfumes

Lichen acids were the source of important dyes for cotton and wool in medieval Europe. Two purple and red dyes, orchil and cudbear, were obtained from the lichens Roccella and Ochrolechia. Lichen dyes were dissolved in human urine, and the yarns were immersed in this mixture. Ammonia salts in the urine functioned as mordants to make the dyes permanent. Pine lichen or wolf moss (Letharia vulpina), a beautiful chartreuse fruticose lichen that grows on the bark of pines and fir throughout the mountains of the Pacific United States, contains a mildly toxic yellow dye called vulpinic acid. The striking canary-yellow porcupine quills woven into the baskets of Klamoth and Yurok Indians were dyed with this lichen. A brownish dye from the foliose lichen Parmelia omphalodes is used to this day on hand-woven Harris tweeds from the Outer Hebrides.

The purple-red stain orcein is derived from the lichen Roccella tinctoria. In fact, the washcloth in photo was dyed with orcein. Without a mordant, such as urea, the colors will readily wash out of the cloth.

Some lichens contain various phenolic acids and essential oils that produce fragrant odors in scented soaps and help fix the aroma of fine perfumes. For centuries a lovely fruticose lichen called oak moss (Evernia prunastri) has been collected in Europe for making perfume.Through a complex process of solvent extraction and distillation, oak moss has become an important ingredient in the manufacture of perfumes and high-quality cosmetics. This remarkable lichen occurs in California, but air pollution has eliminated it throughout most of its former range in southern California. Oak moss still clings to the branches of ponderosa pines on Palomar Mountain in San Diego County.

Assorted foliose and fruticose lichens from Palomar Mountain in San Diego County, California. The fruticose lichen at lower left is oak moss (Evernia prunastri). In Europe, oak moss is collected and made into a delicate perfume. Other lichens in photo include Letharia vulpina (upper left), Hypogymnia imshaugii (top), Platismatia glauca (lower right), and Usnea sp. (upper right).

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