lichen beard

mellow lichen

Lichens are amazing: they’re made up of two organisms (a fungus and an alga) living together in an harmonious symbiotic relationship, they can variously survive all climates and altitudes and apparently cover 8% of the land surface of our planet, they are hyper-sensitive to air pollution and so tell us about the health of our (and their!) environment, and they have magnificent dyeing properties!

I’ve long been a fan of this magical stuff (variously named earth wrinkles, freckle pelts, fog fingers, dragon’s funnel, angel’s hair, tar-jelly, and old man’s beard by whimsical humans), and many years ago I did a school science project that explored the dyeing properties of lichens. Sadly the details of the processes involved are now a hazy blur in my mind (like much of the stuff I ‘learnt’ at school) but I do remember that the resultant dye colours, on natural fibres like cotton and wool, were incredibly subtle and beautiful.

Using a ‘boiling water method’ can result in shades of yellow, ochre, orange, russet, brown, copper, bronze, olive and green. Fermenting the lichens in ammonia (a rather pungent process, but worth it for the unexpected results!) yields a vibrant range of colours from purple, mauve & violet to red, rose, pink & magenta.

Apparently a third method – photo-oxidisation – can be used to obtain various shades of blue, but my schoolgirl scientist wasn’t sophisticated enough (or curious enough?) to try this method and so I have no idea what it involves.

I’d like to do some lichen dyeing again one day, but for the moment I’ll simply marvel at the colours, textures and patterns they form out there in the natural world, free from human intervention…

lichen map

lichen damp

lichen mosaic

lichen suspended

fiery lichen

pale lichen

long shadow lichen

wiry lichen

lichen meets moss

lighthouse lichen