Lichen and Moss
Growing on tree trunks, rocks, fallen logs, or other available surfaces with moist conditions and suitable nutrients, lichens and moss are a common sight in wetlands and other moist areas of the northwest boreal forest. Unlike the various tree species found in Canada’s boreal forest that are unique to the area, the various lichen and moss species found in North America can also be found in boreal forests around the world. The following three excerpts, taken from Terry Garvin’s book, Carving Faces, Carving Lives: People of the Boreal Forest, describe in brief these two plants, and their traditional uses by the peoples of the northwest.
There are numerous types of lichens, actually symbiotic associations between algae and fungi. Lichens, among the hardiest of plants, are found on dead branches and rocks. They grow profusely in certain areas of the forest, and are a favoured food of caribou. Occasionally (when other foods are scarce), people eat the partially digested lichen found in the stomachs of the caribou they have killed. Caribou, like other deer and domestic cattle, have a chambered stomach which is capable of digesting cellulose, a component of raw lichen. People cannot digest this material and derive more nutritional benefit from eating the partially digested lichen than from directly consuming the plant itself.
In northwest Canada, the prevailing winds are from the northwest. Lichen growth is caused by moisture (rain and sleet) being blown onto the northwest face of a tree. The moisture drips to the base of the tree, providing nutrients for the lichen. This is a practical and natural compass for people travelling in the forest.
Sphagnum moss is a low, tufted, herbaceous plant that grows on rocks, at the foot of trees, and on damp soil. It is commonly found in the muskegs or peat bogs in the forest. In the fall, the moss dries and turns a rusty brown. The top of the plant is picked off and discarded, and the soft, light-brown layer of growth beneath is hung in the sun and breeze to dry. Once dried, moss can be used in a variety of ways: as an absorbent for baby diapers, as sanitary absorbent by menstruating women, as stuffing for pillows and bedding, and as stuffing to expand and clean containers made from bird or animal parts. It can be a dish cloth or chinking in log buildings. Many Aboriginal People traditionally used this natural product.