Icelandic lichen, an organism belonging to the fungal kingdom, possesses numerous beneficial properties for humans. Also called true Iceland lichen and Iceland moss, it is scientifically known as Cetraria islandica. It is a plant organism belonging to the fungi realm and harbors many advantageous properties. This lichen is a species belonging to the kingdom Fungi, division Ascomycota, family Parmeliaceae. It is probably the most well-known lichen (sometime it’is called arctic lichen) and gets its common name from its widespread presence in the lava fields of Iceland. However, this lichen is also found in our country; indeed, it is easily found from mountainous to subalpine areas, especially in coniferous forests, but also on rocks and open meadows.
However, not everyone knows that this organism is rich in active principles and beneficial properties, which can be exploited in homemade preparations with the collection of the thallus. Let’s see the physical characteristics to recognize it, the properties, and the uses of Cetraria islandica.
Description of true Iceland lichen
Cetraria islandica is a fruticose terricolous lichen, which lives on the ground, rocks, or tree bark. It looks like a small bush, reaching a maximum height of 10 cm. Lichens do not have leaves but instead have a vegetative body, called a thallus.
In true Iceland lichen, the thallus is variably branched, more often dichotomously divided. Each lobe, therefore, divides into two new lobes, which in turn each divide into two more lobes, and so on. The lobes are leathery, folded into a “U” shape, and often fringed at the edges, the basal ones being cylindrical. The color is olive or olive-green in younger lichens. Often, the upper surface is shiny or whitish, while the lower surface is greenish-gray. The marginal fringes tend towards brown.
At the ends of the upper lobes, single circular formations can be observed, either singularly or paired, in brown color. These are the reproductive organs of Icelandic lichen, called apothecia. They are roundish areas with raised and undulating margins, inside which the spores are reproduced, ensuring the lichen’s reproduction. Remember, it belongs to the fungi kingdom.
Harvesting and Preserving true Iceland lichen
Obviously, only the thallus of true Iceland lichen is used. This can be collected in spring, between March and April, or in autumn, between October and November. Try to collect lighter plants, which are younger and avoid those that are too dark. To do this, use a knife and cut it flush. Of course, one should not over-collect; it is best to take only a few pieces, sufficient for personal limited use. Another piece of advice is to collect lichen in uncontaminated environments, away from sources of pollution, given its significant capacity to absorb substances present in the atmosphere.
The freshly collected thallus should be cleaned of soil, eliminating any other mixed plants. It is then dried in the sun and stored in paper bags or glass jars.
Properties of Icelandic Lichen
Icelandic lichen is rich in active principles, such as lichenic acids, lichenic polysaccharide, usnic acid, fumaric acid, cetraric acid, starches, and mucilages. It has several properties, including antitussive, antidiarrheal, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties. Especially the latter are prominent, thanks to the presence of usnic acid. However, on a domestic level, it is challenging to fully exploit these virtues, which can be done more easily by purchasing syrups, mother tinctures, and supplements from herbalists and specialized stores.
For cosmetic use, Icelandic lichen is widely used in the production of certain toothpaste.
True Iceland lichen finds ample domestic use, especially as an emollient on irritated mucous membranes and as an expectorant in coughs. Being rich in mucilages, it has a soothing effect on irritated intestinal walls and can act as an antiemetic and antidiarrheal. For external use, it can be used on boils, pustules, acne, and as a cleanser. Finally, it is also a mild emergency disinfectant on sores and wounds.
For internal use, against intestinal and bronchial inflammations, this lichen can be used by preparing a decoction. To do this, use 2 g of dried thallus in 100 ml of water. If you want to mitigate the strong bitter taste of Icelandic lichen, you can first boil it briefly, filter the water, and add more water to get the final decoction, to be taken in 2-3 cups a day.
For external use, the same decoction can be used for washing, dabbing it on the affected areas with cotton.
For cosmetic use, a handful in the water makes the bathwater emollient and purifying for the skin.