Picture this scenario. You are out in the woods and lost and you’ve eaten through all the food in your day pack.
Moss and lichen can be consumed in survival situations. In fact, several cultures have used moss and lichen as a food staple for centuries. However, they’re highly acidic and can cause a terrible stomachache when eaten raw. If possible, rinse them thoroughly for several minutes before consuming them.
Here is a guide on where to find moss and lichen and how to identify the difference between each species. There are also some helpful hints on how to prepare the moss and lichen before eating it.
Can You Eat Moss?
Most people assume that you can’t eat moss. But surprisingly, you can!
It’s best to harvest the very top green layer as that’s the most fresh. Because the deeper you go, the more bacteria and pathogens you could be introducing into your system.
Although you can consume moss raw, our bodies weren’t meant to digest it, so it can cause an intense stomach ache.
Make sure to rinse it vigorously to get rid of any unwelcome bugs or dirt. Moss tastes bitter and acidic. Kind of like aspirin.
There are over 12,000 species of moss that can be found throughout the world, except in salt water. They mostly grow in moist shady locations and absorb water very well.
Be mindful of where and how you harvest moss. Because it is a primitive plant and takes centuries to grow, building layer upon layer.
Can You Eat Lichen?
Most Lichen is edible and like moss, tastes bitter because of the high acidity. Make sure to harvest it in clean, fresh places as lichen absorbs everything around it.
Rinse the moss thoroughly before consuming raw. If possible, boil the lichen for at least an hour in water as that will make it more palatable.
According to the U.S. Forest service, there are over 3,600 types of lichen in North America alone. Lichen grows all over the world and in all types of extreme environments.
Lichen is formed from a mutually beneficial relationship between algae and fungus. It doesn’t have any root structure and can survive in both salt and fresh water.
Common Edible Mosses and Lichen
Most of the most well known edible mosses aren’t really moss, but lichen or algae.
- Sphagnum Moss is light green and grows together in clumps. You can find it throughout the world in wet, swampy areas. It sometimes forms thick mats that float on water. Sphagnum Moss is less acidic than other mosses and absorbs water really well, so you can squeeze it to extract the water for drinking. And its antibacterial properties make it ideal as a water filter or to pack wounds as soldiers did in WW1.
- Reindeer moss grows mostly in Arctic regions or cold, dry places and is actually a lichen. It’s white in color, looks like it has deer antlers and can grow up to 8cm or 3 inches high. During the winter months, it’s a food staple for many animals such as:
- musk oxen
- It’s high in carbohydrates and grows fastest in the spring and fall. It can be used as a thickener in soups and stews but must be boiled to remove the acid or you can get really bad stomach cramps.
- Iceland Moss is actually a lichen. It grows mostly in alpine areas and is common in Iceland, hence it’s name. This lichen can range from grayish-white to deep brown and grows about 3 inches high. Like Reindeer moss, this lichen is also used as a supplement for sheep and cattle.
- Also, like Sphagnum Moss, Iceland Moss is good for healing wounds and treating sickness. After it’s processed, Iceland Moss is added to all kinds of foods as a thickener. But like any lichen, can taste bitter and cause stomach aches if eaten raw.
- Rock Tripe is a lichen that clings to rocks and grows in the parts of North America ranging from New England down to Mexico. It is usually found on granite surfaces in wet, forested areas. Early American explorers used it as a food source to supplement their diet.
Rock tripe must be very carefully cooked or it produces cramps. Thomas Seton says that it tastes somewhat like tapioca with a hint of licorice.
- Cut off the roots.
- Wash away all the sand and grit.
- Roast it in a pan until crisp.
- Boil it for an hour.
- It can be served hot or cold.
- Wila, or Bryoria Fremontii, is lichen that looks like long brown hair and hangs from trees. It’s found in dry open forests ranging from deserts to the coast, such as the western United States and Eurasia.
- It was considered to be a tasty treat by many Native American groups in the Northwestern United State and highly desirable. But Wila is mostly used as a source of nutrition during famines because of how thick and filling. It’s easy to harvest and should be boiled in water before consuming. Some people say it has a mild taste in comparison to other lichens.
- Oak Moss is a pale-green lichen that grows on oak and other deciduous trees and can be found in mountainous areas in the Northern Hemisphere. It has a starchy texture and can be eaten raw in a pinch.
- It is often referred to as tree moss and smells like a wet forest floor. It’s mostly used in making perfumes. People also use Oak Moss to help with intestinal issues.
- Spanish Moss is silvery-gray and has an ethereal beauty about it. It’s also referred to as horsehair or “Grandfather’s Whiskers.” You often see it hanging in sheets from trees in the southern part of the United States. It grows in the southern regions of North America and in Central and South America.
- Indian tribes valued Spanish Moss for its thick inner fiber. They used it when building their homes and twisted it into rope. It was also used for packing materials and stuffing mattresses. Make sure to boil it before eating or any other use because Spanish Moss can play host to chiggers and red bugs.
- Irish Moss, also called Sea Moss, is actually part of the algae family. It is usually reddish brown and found floating in salty sea water along the coast. This hardy moss can withstand freezing cold temperatures.
- It got its nickname because it grows in Ireland, and was used for medicinal purposes and as food source for hundreds of years. It is also very popular in Jamaica and used for making a sweet drink. Apparently, it’s very uplifting for certain activities.
- Irish Moss is very popular right now as health food and and can be purchased either in stores or online. When boiled down, it becomes thick and jelly-like and produces Carrageen, which is used as a thickener in many foods. Wildcrafted Irish Moss is available on Amazon.
- Make sure to rinse it well and boil before using.
Watch out for Bright Yellow Lichen
Watch out for any bright yellow lichen because this contains a highly poisonous substance called vulpinic acid.
Wolf Lichen is the most the most common lichens containing vulpinic acid. It got its name because ancient Europeans used it to poison wolves and foxes. Some Native American tribes used it to poison their arrowheads and still others boiled it for tea as an anti-inflammatory.
What about that slimy green stuff that clings to the rocks in running water? That’s not moss or lichen, but green algae and it can be used as an emergency food source.
Tim Halberg, from Turtlehead, decided to try it but found it to be barely edible. Barely. Survival Instinct shared how to clean and process it properly to make green algae palatable.
Don’t mistake blue-green algae for green algae though. Blue-green algae aren’t algae, but a bacterium that thrives in mostly still water. These toxic algae bloom in hot weather in what looks like a massive green paint spill.
You can eat moss or lichen to survive, but only use it as a last resort, as the human body can’t process it effectively and you’ll probably end up with a terrible stomach ache. Small birds, like crows, and other animals that may have been conditioned to not be afraid of humans.