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Lichen - Preparation

The hardwood forests on Carey Floyd's model of the Tennessee Central rout were made from lichen covered with ground foam. Realising that he was going to need rather a lot of lichen, he decided to gather and prepare it himself.

Lichen - Preparation

The lichen described here is the same that is sold for hobby use and is also known as "reindeer moss". It is a symbiotic growth of fungus and algea. Adapted for cool climates, it favours acidic soil, and can usually be found in pine woods. Around North Carolina, lichen may be found growing on north-facing banks by the side of the road. If you are interested and/or easily distracted, there is a fascinating archive of lichen-related information at http://www.lichen.com

Lichen - PreparationLichen resembles a gray-green scrubbing pad when dry, but changes when it gets wet, darkening in color and swelling up to twice its dry size. The picture to the left shows an area of growth right alongside a rural road, about ten feet off of the pavement. The ground was moist, there having been rain within a day or so, and the patches of lichen are about 10 to 20 cm in diameter, dome-shaped and feel like soft sponges.

Harvesting technique is a matter of style, but after much experimentation, I have found that bending over and picking it up will work just fine. Let your own personal philosophy guide you, but I prefer to take only about every tenth cluster with the hope that the moist mycelium that is left undisturbed underground will renew itself.

Lichen - PreparationSome dirt, leaves and pine needles will come up with the lichen, and this can be trimmed on site if you've remembered to bring a pair of scissors. On this occasion my collection was spontaneous so I just stuffed handfuls into a tall kitchen garbage bag, dirt and all. Ten minutes of plucking and stuffing, including time for photography, yielded as much as I was likely to process over the following week. Subsequent cleaning and trimming would reduce this quantity by a third, leaving enough to cover about a square metre.


The first step, if it wasn't done on site, is to clean it. By this I mean pulling out the twigs and pine needles, cutting or pulling off the dirt, and trimming away any parts that are undesirable.

A clump of lichen with pine needles, seed pods, twigs, and most likely a bug or two! Trimming off the brown, black, or other objectionable materials from the underside. Clean and trimmed.

To preserve the lichen we need to replace its water and chlorophyll by soaking it in a pot with 3 parts water to 1 part glycerine, plus some fabric dye. The glycerine and dye will be absorbed so that when the processed lichen is dried, it will retain its colour and remain soft and pliant. Heating the mixture and allowing it to cool as describe below speeds up the process considerably.

Lichen - PreparationThe pot shown to the right has an enamel finish and has survived many preservation efforts. DON'T borrow from the kitchen with any intention of returning the borrowed items to food service.

The condition of the hotplate on which the pot rests is indicative of the corrosive potential of some of the fabric dyes that I have used. To be fair, I do also use this hotplate to melt white metal for casting small parts, so it is subjected to some rough treatment. After 25 years it is holding up rather well.

After mixing up the preserving solution (more information below) I stuff as much lichen as I can into the pot. Then I heat it, bringing it almost to a boil before allowing it to cool again. After an hour or so, the lichen can be removed and the excess liquid squeezed out. I usually process a potful and then let it sit for a day or two. The longer it soaks, the more dye is absorbed and generally, the darker will be the resulting color. It then needs to be spread out on sheets of newspaper and left to dry for a couple of days before being used or put into a plastic bag for storage.


I have devoted considerable effort in trying to locate an inexpensive source of glycerine. Almost all of the glycerine that can be found is "white" or clean enough to eat or to use in making soap. This is far higher quality than we really need here but thus far I have only located "yellow" or low-grade glycerine in 55 gallon quantities which is somewhat excessive. The next smaller size seems to be food grade and typically costs around $50us for a gallon. Sources on the Internet come and go but search for soap-making supplies. By this point in my life, I would have saved money by purchasing a gallon however every time I set out to process lichen, I am certain that I do not need that much and that I will never ever do this again and so I go to a discount pharmacy or Wallys-Market and purchase clean food-grade glycerine in 4oz bottles (at a poor price-per-volume compared to the gallon mentioned above).


I have had excellent success with every brand of dye that I have tried. The most ubiquitous brand will require heating the solution almost to a boil. Recently, I have been using cold water fabric dyes with good success. Eager to find richer colors, I purchased some rather expensive dyes, intended for batik, from an art supply store. These dyes are quite intense so much less of the dye is required per batch, thus offsetting the extra cost. I use various shades of yellow and green.

Lichen - PreparationLightening a shade is far more difficult than darkening one so I start with yellow or light green for the first batch and work slowly towards the darker shades by adding more and darker dyes to subsequent batches. Remember to keep the water/glycerine mix to about 3:1 when more is needed.

Note that depending on how good a job you do of cleaning the lichen, the color may drift towards brown. This may not be objectionable, depending on your goals.

I use a rather small pot and make up new colors often. While more trouble than processing just a few large batches, the result is a good many color variations and I have been pleased with the results.


Use good heavy duty gloves when squeezing out the excess preserving solution. Depending on where you spend your non-hobby time, bright green hands can prompt curious comments. You may also want to wear gloves when collecting and cleaning depending on how well acquainted you want to become with the bugs that you will undoubtedly find living there.

Eye protection is appropriate at the preserving stage and you should also think about what clothes to wear. I have almost no chance of getting through this process without splattering dye somewhere. In truth, it is probably best done outside. A friend processes large batches outside on a picnic table and there is significant merit to this approach. As I have negotiated a very non-restrictive zoning of my basement, I perform the task over many layers of newspaper on a workbench and concrete floor. But no matter how much paper I put down, interesting stains do appear on my floor and bench.

In summary:

  1. Collect lichen when wet if possible

  2. Clean off sticks, bugs, and leaves

  3. Stuff in pot with 3 parts water, 1 part glycerine, and some fabric dye

  4. Either heat almost to a boil and let cool or let soak cold for a day or so

  5. Remove from pot, squeeze out excess liquid, set out on newspaper to dry.

  6. Store in a plastic bag.

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