Iceland moss is a type of lichen consisting of a symbiosis of fungi and algae. They form a co-operative of the two species from which both benefit. The fungal part takes care of providing water and minerals, while the algal part forms biological material with the help of photosynthesis.
Iceland moss contains a high proportion of water-soluble polysaccharides together with special lichen acids that do not exist anywhere in nature except in lichens. Numerous scientific studies have been carried out on the efficacy of the above materials. The principal results are as follows:
- Anti-oxidant effects
- Efficacy against bacteria
- Efficacy against viruses
- Efficacy against tumour growth
- Strengthens the immune system
Iceland moss has been used in Icelandic folk medicine for respiratory ailments, such as colds, lung colds, asthma and tuberculosis; for gastrointestinal problems, such as digestion problems, gastritis and constipation; as well as to improve appetite. The moss has also been used externally as hot soaks for eczema, dry skin and on wounds that are slow to heal.
Traditionally, the lichens have been hand-picked while wet to ensure that as little as possible other vegetation is included. This method is rather time-consuming but is an advantage, as the lichens often grow among bushes and heather.
Another method is to rake up the dry lichens with rakes. A rake with a shortened head and smaller spaces between pins has been used successfully in collection. Obviously, more other vegetation will be included than if the lichens were picked wet by hand, but mechanised cleaning can counterbalance this.
The lichens must be dried immediately after collection. The best method is to spread them out and turn them over regularly. Simple and cheap technology can increase productivity in the cleaning of the lichens. Cleaning can be done in three ways: on a rack, with pressurised air and by rinsing out the dirt from the lichens with water. Spacious premises and sufficient running water are required in order to clean the lichens with water. The method selected is somewhat dependent on the premises available and how much other vegetation and other impurities are included with the lichens.
All work on the lichens, such as drying, cleaning and storage, must take place in an area unpolluted by animal waste.
Iceland moss use
It is considered likely that Icelanders have been using Iceland moss since the time of settlement in 874. The first mention of Iceland moss use in Iceland is in Jónsbók (Book of Laws) from 1281, which states that it is forbidden to trespass on other farms to pick lichens. The Icelandic sagas contain references to lichen picking expeditions. Good lichen picking areas were regarded as advantageous resources and increased the value of a farm. There are numerous references to the general use of Iceland moss in the 18th and 19th centuries.
All farms that had Iceland moss resources on their land would send a group of people every summer to collect the winter stores of lichens. Expeditions generally took place in June and lasted around 6–14 days. Participants were mainly women and youngsters, under the management of one man. The group would travel to the highlands on horseback equipped with tents food and leather bags for the lichens. Once they reached their destination, they would pitch the tents, preferably near a stream or river, prepare a fireplace and spread heather in the bottom of the tents. Work on the collection of the lichens began in the evening or early night. The collector hung the bag on his shoulder with a specially woven wool yarn and the pickers spread out. Lichens were collected throughout the night, as it is bright both day and night during this time of year and the earth is wet with dew. The dew softens the Iceland moss and makes it easier to pick and separate from other vegetation.
In the morning, the pickers would reconvene at the tents and have a meal. If the weather was good, the lichens would be dried outside in the sunlight. After the meal, the people would entertain each other with stories or song. Stories of elves, the hidden people and outlaws were also extremely popular. People would then go to sleep until the evening, when they would continue picking. Once the picking expedition was complete, the resulting haul was transported on horseback back to the farm. There, the final drying and cleaning of the lichens would be completed. The winter store was kept in bags and barrels in a dry location. Various methods were used to prepare the lichens for food.
The moss was considered to be a healthy and nutritious source of food, rich in minerals, particularly iron, calcium and fibre. The lichens were prepared in a range of ways, such as Iceland moss milk, Iceland moss porridge, breads, offal dishes and to make tea.
- Cooking: Examples of the traditional use of Iceland moss in foods.
- Water gruel: Iceland moss wetted and cut with a special curved knife. Hot water poured over. Wheat or rice added. Boiled and eaten with milk.
- Iceland moss milk: Whole Iceland moss boiled in milk and eaten as a soup.
- Iceland moss was used to eke out wheat in breads and when making black pudding and liver sausages, particularly during hard times.
- Iceland moss tea: Iceland moss boiled in water. The lichens were filtered out and the resulting fluid used as a drink. This drink was considered extremely healthy and was widely used to heal respiratory ailments, such as the common cold, lung colds, asthma and tuberculosis; for digestive ailments such as gastritis and constipation; and to improve appetite.
- Medical use: Examples of the medical uses of Iceland moss.
- Iceland moss on the skin: Iceland moss was wetted and placed as a hot soak on dry skin, eczema and sores that were slow to heal.
Iceland moss in modern society.
Society in Iceland has changed tremendously from that described above. The nation is no longer as dependent on the natural environment for food collection as it used to be. The majority of Icelanders live in urban areas, and living conditions have changed radically. We at Íslensk fjallagrös hf. strive to build on tradition, history and the beliefs of our forebears that Iceland moss is a healthy food source and can promote general wellbeing. In order to achieve these goals, the company has developed goods accessible to modern society where interest in natural health goods has been steadily growing.