Lichens are one of our favourite sources of inspiration. The clean air here means they’re in great abundance in the Highlands & Islands. I love photographing them and though I have hundreds of pictures I can never resist taking another one – especially when it comes to the striking yellow Xanthoria parietina.
This lichen inspired two of our latest throws, just arrived in the shop. We had a yarn dyed specially to match the colour.
Many different varieties have made their way into our weavings over the years. This one was inspired by ochre-coloured lichens in the Cuillin Hills.
A couple of years ago I decided I wanted to know more about the biology of these fascinating organisms. So I signed up for an introductory lichen identification day at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. One of the first things I learnt is that it’s actually very hard to identify many lichens! You often have to look close up under a microscope or even use chemical testing.
We covered a lot in the day and some of the information was quite overwhelming, but here’s my handy checklist of Things I Learnt About Lichen:
What is lichen? It’s a fungus living in a symbiotic relationship with an algae and/or cyanobacteria. Most of what we see when we look at a lichen is the fungus.
How does it grow? The fungus ‘farms’ algae: it protects the algae from UV light and gives it a place to live, then ‘harvests’ the sugars that the algae produces by photosynthesis. Fungi don’t photosynthesise themselves, so this symbiotic relationship is their way of getting energy.
What types of lichen are there? Lichens have a number of different growth forms. The most basic ones are fruticose (with algae all around), foliose (leaf-like) and crustose (very closely attached to a stone or rock). But as is the case with anything to do with lichens, it’s not straightforward and there are many cross-over types.
What’s behind the names? Most lichens only have Latin names, but there are quite a few with common names, especially those that have a medical or a practical use. For example, Lungwort was used to treat lung disease, and Dog Lichen was a cure for dog bites – and also looks like dog’s teeth underneath. Crottle or Crotal is one we’re very familiar with as weavers – it refers to a number of lichens used for dyeing wool, which was common in Scotland in the past though it’s now not allowed commercially. The word comes from the Gaelic word for lichen.
All in all, it’s a totally fascinating subject. Being able to identify the more complicated lichens takes years of study, but spending a day learning more about these complex symbiotic organisms made me appreciate them even more.
Just to finish off the Lichen lesson, here’s a short video of us weaving our Map Lichen scarves.