Let me begin with a confession: sales of my books don’t pay the rent, so I’m obliged to lead plant and mushroom walks, which don’t pay the rent, either. Not so long ago, the most likely question I’d be asked on one of these walks was: Is it edible? Now, however, the most likely question is: Is it medicinal? For as an alternative to becoming slaves of the pharmaceutical industry, more and more people are turning to Nature for their medical cures, with—I hate to say this—not necessarily beneficial results.
Most so-called medicinal plants aren’t very happy with Iceland’s climate, unless they’re grown in a greenhouse. Lichens, on the other hand, are very happy here, for they delight in extreme conditions. This is why they’re called extremophiles—give them intense cold or intense heat, no problem. Give Echinacea or chamomile the same conditions, and you can say goodbye to them. Note: Lichens aren’t plants, but members in good standing of Kingdom Fungi.
In Iceland, there’s one lichen that ranks very high on the list of nature’s medicinals. It’s “Cetraria islandica,” sometimes called Icelandic moss because of its moss-like growth habit. The Icelandic name is fjallagrös, which means “mountain grass.” When someone tells you that he’s going to get some grös, he’s not going to gather grass. He’s going to climb up somewhere to gather fjallagrös.
The Icelandic interest in fjallagrös goes back a long time. In the year 1280, a law banned people from collecting it on someone else’s property. Violators faced stiff penalties. James Nichols, an Englishman who wrote a book about Iceland in 1840, declared that “the poor natives prefer this plant to all other food.” Part of the reason for this was poverty, but another part was genetic—in Norway, the ancestors of these “poor natives” preferred what they called brodmose (literally “bread moss”) to other foods, too.
If you visit that source of all wisdom, the internet, you’ll learn that Cetraria islandica will cure athlete’s foot, asthma, psoriasis, ringworm, whooping cough, chronic diarrhoea, skin lesions, periodontal disease, and HIV infections, among other things. It can also be used as a vaginal douche. Are your red lights flashing? Any medication that cures such a remarkable variety of ailments should be considered dubious. One or two ailments, yes; but if it cures everything, beware…
In Iceland, fjallagrös was mostly used for lung-related problems such as bronchitis, asthma, and tuberculosis. My friend Vilborg grew up in the East Fjords in the 1930s, a time when tuberculosis was rampant. She remembers drinking a cup or more of fjallagrös tea daily to ward off TB. But you don’t need to go back to the 1930s to find fjallagrös aficionados in Iceland. In almost every market or shop, you’ll find bags as well as capsules of it. Country people still mix fjallagrös with skyr or milk for a breakfast dish. Want to sample this dish? Simply wash and dry the lichen, heat milk to the boiling point, add the lichen and some sugar or cinnamon, simmer for ten minutes, and—voila!—serve.
Fjallagrös is an all-purpose lichen. My friend Lene, a skin tanner and dyer, dyes wool a reddish colour with fjallagrös and cow piss. She needed some fjallagrös when I was visiting her recently, so we climbed a hill near Akureyri in search of it. We didn’t need to climb very far before we found our first patch. Given the recent rain, it had an odour not unlike horse sweat. (In its dry state, C. islandica is virtually odourless.)
Lichens may be in the same kingdom as mushrooms, but when you gather a mushroom, you’re gathering only the so-called fruiting body, not the entire organism. When you gather a lichen, you’re taking the whole organism. For this reason, it’s best to be judicious and collect fjallagrös from several different locations, taking a little of it here and a little of it there, as Lene and I did. In less than an hour, we’d gotten enough for her to use in her dyeing and for me to use in tomorrow morning’s fjallagrös-and-milk breakfast dish.
By now, you’re probably wondering if Cetraria islandica has any real medicinal benefits. The answer to this question is not so simple. It does contain lichenin, a chemical with antiviral properties. It also has polysaccharides (a polysaccharide is a special carbohydrate molecule) similar to the ones in Shitake mushrooms, which are touted as medicinal. Concerning its efficacy, however, the jury is still out. Maybe it stimulates the immune system in unspecified ways… or maybe its apparent success is due to the placebo effect, which states: If you think it’ll work, it might indeed work, especially if your problem is minor.
But I can tell you about one medicinal made with fjallagrös that actually works. I’m referring to Fjallagrös Icelandic Schnapps, created by a company in Reykjavík called Iceherbs. During my visit with Lene, I imbibed several drams of this pleasantly bitter drink, and my despair at the current human condition quickly vanished. So, too, did my worries about not being able to pay the rent…
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