Montana Outdoors

March 10, 2008

More on lichens – a word of caution

Filed under: Lichens, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Photography, Photos, Pictures — Tags: , — montucky @ 12:27 pm

In the world of outdoor lore, much of which is undocumented or poorly documented, it has always been said that as a survival technique one could boil lichens and make a nourishing broth that would, in a dire situation, sustain life. That is true, but with one major caveat: some lichens are toxic.

After my post yesterday about lichens, I found it interesting to see this story in the news today from Wyoming where several elk have died recently, apparently from eating lichens. This happened in the Red Rim area southwest of Rawlins in the last week. The story goes on to say that in 2004, several hundred elk died from eating a rare form of poisonous lichen in that area. It did not mention the particular lichen involved, but although it can kill elk, antelope can eat it with no ill effects.

If the author of the story had done a little research, he would have found this USDA Forest Service website Celebrating Wildflowers which sheds more light on the same subject. It says a poisonous lichen, “Parmelia molliuscula (also known as “ground lichen”), was determined to be the cause of death for 300 elk in Wyoming in 2004. Visiting elk from Colorado ate this lichen, which caused tissue decay and eventual death. The native elk were not affected, simply because their immune systems were already equipped to deal with this toxic lichen. This is another example of wildlife and plant life evolving with each other. This lichen has also been known to poison sheep and cattle. “Ground lichen” can also be used as a dye for clothing.”

Another poisonous lichen, the Wolf Lichen Letharia vulpina got its name because it was used in Europe to poison wolves and some native American Indian tribes even used it as a poison on arrowheads. Interestingly, other tribes made a tea from it. This particular lichen is very common in my area and until recently I had thought it to be a moss rather than a lichen. In fact, I can see some from our kitchen window growing on a small dead branch in a pine tree in the yard. I find it colorful and attractive, but fortunately I have never had any inclination to eat it. Here are several photos Wolf Lichen that were taken back in January:

Wolf lichen

Wolf Lichen

Wolf Lichen


  1. Great commentary along side of the photos. The wolf’s lichen is an eye catcher isn’t it? (natures eye candy) I’ll remember this if I ever get in a survialists situation. 🙂 Thanks for the tip!


    Comment by aullori — March 10, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

  2. Yes, it is eye-catching and grows in abundance around here. I’ve noticed too that the animals don’t ever seem to eat it. Now I guess I know why.


    Comment by montucky — March 10, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

  3. I didn’t realize that some lichens are toxic. Thanks so much for the info and the website links.


    Comment by AK_Adventurer — March 10, 2008 @ 9:42 pm

  4. I hadn’t thought much about it either, but I guess it isn’t too surprising because there are quite a few plants that are toxic. What I find interesting is that the original inhabitants here, the Indians sure knew which were and which were not! They were ahead of us in so many ways.


    Comment by montucky — March 10, 2008 @ 9:59 pm

  5. I like the commentary. If one looks more deeply into what’s known about the plants involved, simple statement is news stories and books make more sense. Plus, it’s fascinating stuff anyhow!



    Comment by knightofswords — March 11, 2008 @ 10:18 am

  6. I agree, Malcolm. There’s are so many things to be learned about the world of the outdoors that, once understood, make other things fit. It is indeed a fascination and a never-ending learning process!


    Comment by montucky — March 11, 2008 @ 11:00 am

  7. I had no idea this was lichen, I would definitely have thought moss on this one, great shots and info Terry 🙂


    Comment by Bernie Kasper — March 11, 2008 @ 7:15 pm

  8. Just one more thing I kind of tripped over, Bernie. It’s humbling to me to realize just how little I really know about the outdoors.


    Comment by montucky — March 11, 2008 @ 8:31 pm

  9. That’s very interesting how the visiting population of antelope got sick, while the residents were fine – adaptability in action! The color & textural contrast of that last photo are lovely!


    Comment by Adam R. Paul — March 11, 2008 @ 10:12 pm

  10. I thought it was really interesting too. The more situations like that I learn, the more I’m in awe of nature!


    Comment by montucky — March 11, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

  11. In the story we are reading, the girl survives on the Alaska tundra by eating things she finds, including lichen.

    I would have called this moss if you’d not told us (though it looks nothing like the moss I know in this area)

    nice pictures!


    Comment by silken — March 12, 2008 @ 7:21 am

  12. The old Indians knew exactly which plants they could eat and which they couldn’t, and did quite nicely. I have always been very cautious and will eat only the ones that I know about for sure, after being surprised at finding out that some are toxic.


    Comment by montucky — March 12, 2008 @ 9:08 am

  13. thanks much, brother


    Comment by Haroldlh — March 24, 2008 @ 12:34 am

  14. I have been collecting the beautiful chartreuse wolf lichen for table decorations for a fashion show I am doing. Does anyone know if one should be concerned with handeling it, or having inside, (but we certainly wouldn’t be eating it)


    Comment by Jennie — July 27, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

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