Saturday, May 23, 2015

Lichen - Letharia vulpina (Wolf Lichen)

Letharia vulpina - Winthrop, Washington
Letharia vulpina, also referred to as "wolf lichen" is a bright yellow-green lichen which grows abundantly on the dry branches of Douglas fir and pine trees on the eastern slopes of the Cascade mountain range in Washington state.  This lichen gets the nickname of wolf lichen from it's barbaric use in Europe.  It was used to poison and kill wolves and foxes.  The lichen was crumpled, mixed with crushed glass, and then mixed into pieces of meat and set out for the animals to eat.  The broken glass perforated the animals intestines, allowing the vulinic acid in the lichen to penetrate their systems and paralyze the respiratory organs.  Letharia vulpina was also used by the Achomawi indians of northern California to make poison arrowheads.

On a more contradictory note, this lichen was also believed to be medicinal,  It was boiled and used to wash sores or wounds, and in a weak solution it was drank as a tea to help with internal problems, however some believed a mask should be worn when preparing it so as not to breath in it's powder.

Other uses for Letharia vulpina were to create a yellow dye which was used for coloring both wool and basket fibers, and that is how I used it.

While on vacation with family in Winthrop, Washington, my sister-in-law came in from a short walk and said, "Do you think you can dye with this?"  In her had was a clump of Letharia vulpina.  The lichen had blown off a tree and she had found it lying in a ditch along the roadside.  Actually, the ditches were filled with this lichen which had blown down in a wind storm.  We gathered up a bag full.  Once home, I boiled up a tiny batch for dye, simmering it for about an hour, then dropped in a small hank of unmordanted wool yarn and let that simmer for another hour.  Lichens are known to have tannins which act as a natural mordant, so no other mordants are necessary for light fastness.  I wore no mask and suffered no consequences.

Yellow dye from Letharia vulpina

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