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Folk taxonomy of lichens

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This is an essay on ethnolichenology. To return to the main page click here.

Generally folk taxonomies have one name for both lichens and mosses. Lichens and mosses are not recognized as being different things, but it is usually recognized that there are several different kinds of lichen-mosses.

Folk names for the lichen-moss taxon

Nitinaht, Hesquiat, Madhouse: P'u7up (Turner et al. 1983)
Southern Kwakiult: P'elems (Turner and Bell 1973)
Haida: K'ínxaan or K'ínnaan (Turner 1974)
Bella Coola: Ipst [on ground] or Ipst-aak or [on tree] (Turner 1974)
Lillooet: Pá7sem (Turner 1974)

Although the lichen-moss taxon is common, there are some folk taxonomies where lichens and mosses were not considered to be the same thing. The Waorani of Ecuador grouped at least one lichen, the hallucinogenic Ne/ne/ndape/ (Dictyonema spp. nov.), with other fungi instead of with mosses. This may be because Dictyonema, being a basidiolichen, is much more fungus-like than most lichens.

The Saami recognized lichens as a distinct group from mosses. This is probably because of the close connection between reindeer and Saami society. The reindeer enjoy eating lichen but will not eat moss.

Bedouin sheep herders refer to Aspicilia esculenta as Trub, and the Libyan shepherds refer to the same lichen as Torba. Both names are also applied to dirt. This lichen grows as a vagrant on the sand and rocks and is used to varying degrees as a sheep forage. It is interesting that a lichen is grouped with dirt instead of with moss. This is possibly because the lichen looks a lot like small pebbles, and because there isn't much moss in the desert.

Folk taxonomies often create intermediate taxa of lichens or lichen-mosses. This will often refer to a grouping of lichens based on substrate (most common), growth habit (common), or colour (uncommon).

The most common intermediate taxa are ones created on the basis of the substrate that the lichen is growing on. There are several examples of this. The Nitinaht differentiated lichen-mosses by the branch that they grew on. Lichen-mosses were generally called P'u7up. A lichen-moss on spruce was called Tuxupati·c p'u7up, on hemlock Q'wi(tl)'apati·c p'u7up, and on grand fir Čabsapati·c p'u7up (Turner et al. 1983). The Bella Coola call lichen-mosses on the ground Ipst, and those on tree Ipst-aak (Turner 1974). The Lepchas and Nepalis of Sikkim, India, refer to lichens as Jhau. Tree lichens are Rukh ku jhau and rock lichens are Dhungo ku jhau (Saklani and Upreti 1992).

Although these intermediate taxon have the superficial appearance of a specific taxa this usually isn't the case. Most groups of people do recognize a few specific lichens within these intermediate taxa as being different.

The Nitinaht create intermediate taxa of epiphytic lichen-mosses based on the type of tree that they are growing on, and they further differentiate different kinds of lichens. According to Turner et al. (1983) the lichens with the Òcream on the insideÓ were used for bandages. This is probably referring to the creamy central cord in the Usnea thallus, which is a diagnostic feature of the genus. It is interesting that the Nitinaht would have known a diagnostic character of Usnea and used this to distinguish the lichen, especially when one notes that the Nitinaht use Usnea as a bandage and this lichen has characteristically high concentrations of usnic acid, the strongest antibiotic to be discovered in lichens.

Not all people differentiated lichens according to the substrate they grew on. Specifically, northern peoples tended to classify lichens according to growth habit, use, or (more rarely) colour. This is probably because of the abundance and importance of ground lichens in these areas.

Lichen taxa of selected northern First Peoples

Barrens-Keewatin [most names probably shared with other Inuit groups] (Wilson 1979)

       Nagjjuujaq: Unused yellow-green bushy lichens
       Quajuq: Flat foliose lichens
       Tingaujaq: Dark hairy lichens growing on the ground (also Baffin Island, Ungava-Labrador, Greenland Inuit, and North Slope Inuit)
       Uriugaq: "White moss"

Saami of northern Scandinavia (Lynge1921, cited in Perez-Llano 1944)

       Jaegel: Large fruticose lichens commonly eaten by reindeer
       Lappo: Beard type lichens enjoyed by reindeer but not commonly eaten
       Gadna: Foliose lichens growing on rocks and trees not normally eaten by reindeer

Besides classifying lichens differently, northern First Peoples also generally have more names for lichens. This is probably a reflection of the larger role that lichens play in these cultures. Both the Barrens-Keewatin and the Saami mentioned above recognize a relatively large number of lichens. The Yuqpik of Alaska do as well.

Lichens named by the Yuqpik of Alaska

Aouq: Cetraria crispa
Ninguujuq [would like to be stretched]: Flavocetraria cucullata
Tuntutnuukaik [lit. ÒReindeer foodÓ]: Cladina rangiferina
Qelquaq: Lobaria scrobiculata
Kusskoak: Nephroma arcticum

The names given to lichens are often compound names and thus to some extent reflect how the culture viewed the lichen. Quite often the name of a lichen is based on where the lichen grows. The lichen substrate was important for creating intermediate taxa, and it was also thought to be an important characteristic of individual lichens.

Lichen names that reflect lichen substrate

(Tl)'a(tl)'x7a·7aq [lit. "the ones flat against the rock"]  (Southern Kwakiult): Peltigera spp.
Tl'extl'ekw'és [lit. "seaweed of the ground"] (Southern Kwakiult): Peltigera canina
T'it'idičč7a· [lit. "rocks growing on rocks"] (Nitinaht): Peltigera aphthosa and Peltigera canina
Pen'pen'emekxísxn' [lit. "liver on rock"] (Okanagan): any lichen similar to Cladonia chlorophaea
Didi'dichia [lit. "growing on rocks"]  (Makah): Sticta spp.
Jievut hiawsik [lit. "Earth flower"] (Pima: California): Unknown saxicolous lichen
Manil maashaxaeme [lit. "Mountain moss"] (Karok: California): Letharia vulpina
Iwa-take [lit. "Rock mushroom"]  (Japan): Umbilicaria esculenta
Flor de piedra [lit. Stoneflower] (Spain): Ramalina bourgeana, sometimes Xanthoria parientina
Rompepiedra [lit. Stonebreaker] (Spain): Xanthoria parientina
Tripe de roche ["Rock tripe"]  (European explorers): Umbilicaria spp. and Lasallia spp.
Yerba de la Piedra [lit. "Stone grass"] (Uruguay): Usnea densirostra

Lichens were also often named according to how the people used that lichen. Lichen names that reflect use

Hēhyōwō'ĭsts or He-ho-wa-ins'-tots [lit. "Yellow dye" or "Yellow root"] (Cheyenne): Letharia vulpina
E‑simatch‑sis [lit. "Dye"; name also applied to other plants] (Blackfoot): Letharia vulpina
Baduhu-tsinā [lit. "Deer snuff"] (Denís: Brazil): unknown pyrenocarpous lichen
Pine gauze, or Female gauze [translation] (China): Usnea diffracta
Brødmose or Broedmåså [lit. bread moss], Matmåså [lit. food moss], or Svinmåså [lit. "Swine moss"] (Iceland): Cetraria islandica
Ulf-mossa [lit. "Wolf moss"] (Sweden): Letharia vulpina

And finally, some lichens were named according to what they looked like. These names often imply an ontogeny for the lichen and may be associated with creation stories.

Lichen names reflecting appearance or folk ontogeny

Lizard semen [translation] (Northern Paiute: Nevada): Orange and yellow crustose lichens on rocks
Nagaganaw [lit. "Frog's dress"] (Gitksan: BC): Lobaria oregana, may have also applied to Peltigera spp.
Lao-tzu's beard [translation] (China): Usnea diffracta
(Tl)'i·(tl)'i·dqwaqsibak'kw [lit. "resembling whale's baleen"] (Southern Kwakiult) : Peltigera spp.
Ninguujuq ["would like to be stretched"] (Yuqpik: Alaska): Flavocetraria cucullata

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