Lichen Windfall

Lichen windfall is perfect for natural dyeing, since it does no harm to pick up the fallen ones, they will no longer grow. One of the most common and easy-to-recognize lichens in windfall is Ramalina fastigiata.


When walking outside on rainy, windy days, I very often find lots of lichens scattered on the ground under trees. Lichens that the wind has torn down from branches. Sometimes, on the day after a big storm, I’ve come home from walks with all my pockets plus random trash bags filled with windfall. Wonderful windfall with that amazing scent that only lichens have.

Collecting windfall does no harm, since these lichens are not able to continue growing anyway. It’s the best (some would say only) way to obtain lichens for dyeing. When I come home with such a treasure, I usually spread it out on a plastic tray to dry (to prevent mold).

Lichen windfall drying at home. It looks like a big piece of Evernia pruniastri on the left, Ramalina fastigiata on the right, and probably a Parmelia species on the bottom.

But before dyeing with lichen windfall, it’s necessary to sort the lichens and determine the species, since you will need to use the boiling water method (BWM) with some species, and the ammonia method with others:

Boiling water method – it is what it sounds like. Simmer the lichen in water and cool off. Add the yarn to the dye bath and heat it for an hour without boiling.

Ammonia method – the difficult one. Steep the lichen in 1% ammonia (originally, stale urine was used) for several weeks or months, opening and shaking the jar daily to aerate. The red liquid in the jar is the dye bath.

In both methods, no mordant is required, since lichen dyes are substantive (they bind directly to wool without the help of a mordant).

Lichens steeping in 1% ammonia.

In order to type lichens, I recently bought myself a copy of “Lichens, An Illustrated Guide to the British and Irish Species” by Frank S. Dobson. It contains a detailed introduction to lichens, and a detailed key with photos and descriptions.

With my copy of Dobson, I’m planning to take a closer look at the types of lichens that are commonly found in the windfall here in my corner of Denmark. That is, how to recognize them, how to dye with them, and which colors to expect.

I’m beginning with a very common type of lichen, which may very well be the easiest one to recognize: Ramalina fastigiata. Often, large tufts of this will fall, and they are completely covered in small outgrowths that look like tiny suction cups. The outgrowths are apothecia, the fruiting bodies of the lichen. They make spores for sexual reproduction. When the spores germinate in a new location, they meet with a new alga to become a new individual lichen. But the dyer doesn’t have to worry about all that, being able to recognize apothecia is the important part.

A piece of Ramalina fastigiata, completely covered in apothecia. Tufts like this can measure up to about 5 cm (2 inches).

Karen D. Casselman mentions the Ramalina species on the list of ammonia methods lichens in her book, “Lichen Dyes, The New Source Book”.

I’ve previously tested the ammonia method on Ramalina fastigiata and achieved a light rose color (pictures here).

But Casselman also mentions the and Ramalina species in her list of boiling water method lichens, so I decided to test that method on Ramalina fastigiata. I used equal amounts of wool yarn and lichen, and achieved no color at all (no pictures!). The conclusion: Ramalina fastigiata is strictly an ammonia method lichen.

Walks in March

The weather here in Denmark has been all that bad in March. I suppose you’re supposed to make some comment along the lines of “in like a lion, out like a lamb”, but really, good and bad weather just depends on expectations. I’ve been sitting outside in the sun a couple of times already, knitting. And we’ve been on several good walks. There isn’t much new growing yet, so the most interesting living things right now are mushrooms and lichens growing on trees.

This is Evernia prunastri spreading over a tree trunk. I didn’t gather any of it this time, but I have dyed with it before. You have to use the ammonia method on this lichen, in which case it yields nice tones of pink.


We also walked to the edge of Gudenaa, the largest stream in Denmark (I wonder if you could even call it a small river?). Early in March, it had flooded quite a large area, but that is already coming down now.


We have borrowed a piece of garden not far from there, and I managed to plant the first seeds on February 28th, dyer’s greenweed. Before that, I kept the seeds in the freezer for two weeks because they need cold stratification to break dormancy. I didn’t try the freezer last year, and none of them sprouted last year. So I hope it works this time.

We also found ourselves walking in the forest, which was full of interesting things despite the time of year.

Here, a lot of cones that have been picked apart. We found them in a big pile under a tree. It’s the work of a squirrel, its signature being that there are still some bits of material sticking out from the cone’s stem. If a mouse had eaten these cones, it would have cleaned everything off.


We also found jelly ear / wood ear (Auricularia auricula-judae). It is edible, but they were a bit slimy, so we just left them.


A perfect leaf skeleton (found by my daughter)


And this log, patterned by the paths eaten by worms when it had bark. I wish I could knit this pattern…


Finally, I found a lot of rusty gilled polypore, Gloeophyllum sepiarium, which grows on dead coniferous tree, it even grows well on treated logs, like these ones:


These polypores are old, there’s actually lichens growing on them


And here it’s growing in neat lines, guided by the cracks in the tree


This is what the mushroom looks like seen from the bottom. It looks like gills, but this mushroom is a polypore with quite oblong pores.


Rusty gilled polypore is supposed to contain a quite good brown dye, so I harvested a nice pile of them. More to come on that!


Jars of Lichens

Lichen dyeing is a slow discipline – the slowness only surpassed by the pace that the lichens themselves grow at…

I started two jars of lichens late in February, one with Evernia prunastri (left) and one with Ramalina fastigiata – at least, I’m fairly sure that’s what it is (right).


It’s important to mention how I gathered these lichens: the Ramalina fastigiata is all windfall from a single tree that used to grow in the playground near our house. Every time I walked under it, I found at least one bit of fallen lichen, and often, I filled both pockets. But then, the other day, I walked by only to find that the tree had been cut down! Along with every other tree nearby!! I hope some city planners somewhere are hanging their heads in shame. That place is not fit for humans anymore. Or any other species for that matter.

Most of the Evernia prunastri is also windfall, but some was picked during trips to several different forest where it grows so thick that most trees are completely covered with it, and in that case, picking off small bits is OK.

Evernia prunastri, also known as oakmoss, ragged hoary lichen, and stag’s horn lichen, is a well known dye lichen, and is also a component of many perfumes (makes sense, its scent is wonderful, but that’s the case with all lichens I’ve met up close). I put 25 g of this in one jar.

Ramalina fastigiata is not specifically mentioned in the lichen chapter of “Vegetable Dyes” by Ethel M. Mairet, a remarkably useful book from 1916 that you can read for free at the Gutenberg project. Nor does “Lichen Dyes, The New Source Book” by Karen Diadick Casselman, but both books mention unspecified/other Ramalina species as sources of red/pink using the ammonia method (and Casselman also indicates that yellow can be obtained with boiling water method). I put 20 g of Ramalina fastigiata in a jar.

After adding lichen to a jar, it should be filled with 1% ammonia so it covers. I buy the ordinary kind at a supermarket. It is 8%, so I simply make a diltion to 1%.

And then comes the tedious part!

Let the lichens steep in ammonia for weeks and weeks, take the caps off every day to let in air, and shake the jars well and often to ensure aeration. Casselman warns again and again that the color will not develop properly without good aeration.

I was diligent in my vat-shaking until early April, at which point I decided to try out the dyes.

From each jar, I took the amount of liquid that is equivalent to 5 g of lichen. From the Ramalina jar, which had 2o g of lichen, that was 1/4 of the liquid or about 100 ml. From the Evernia jar that contained 25 g of lichen, 1/5 of the liquid.

I diluted them to cover the yarn and placed them in a double boiler system with glass jars inside a pot of water. I remember reading about this somewhere, but I don’t remember who the brilliant person is…

But it’s very clever for these small dye baths AND also very good because the pH is above 10 even after dilution, so you have to heat very gently to not damage the wool:


I gently heated the pot for about an hour, then took out the skeins of wool instead of leaving them in the dye bath until next day as I usually do. I did it differently because I thought the high pH over so many hours would ruin the wool.

This first dyeing attempt gave a couple of skeins of medium pink shades that are quite pleasing, I think! The Evernia-dyed skein (on top) has a slightly browner tone of pink than the Ramalina-dyed one (bottom) which is truly baby pink


After that, I let the jars continue until late June, but I’m afraid the vat-shaking was much less diligent!

But on June 21st, I decided to finish the experiment.

I filtered the rest of the liquid in each jar, then measured the pH, it was 10-11 (as expected). I split the dye liquid from each jar in two, left one of them as it was, and neutralized the other one. I used about 1 part 37% acetic acid to 5-8 parts dye. This is just what we happened to have in the house, HCl would work too. If you want to try this at home, wear goggles and lock children and pets in another room.

Then I used the same double boiler setup as first time, taking out the wool at high pH after an hour, and leaving the skeins in neutral jars until the next day. And the result:


From right to left, it’s:

1: The Evernia-dyed skein from April

2: The Ramalina-dyed ditto

3: Evernia high pH, June

4: Ramalina high pH, June

5: Evernia neutral pH, June

6: Ramalina neutral pH, June

So actually skeins 3 and 4 are just a repeat of 1 and 2 but a couple of months later. I’m really not sure why the color was better in April than in June. Because I stopped shaking the jars as much? Or does it influence the result that I used alun mordanted skeins in April but unmordanted wool in June? It shouldn’t, since lichen dyes are substantial, but one never knows.

The neutralized dye baths yielded more color, but the color is towards tan tones rather than a real pink. Nice colors, but I’ve gotten similar colors from avocado with less effort!


Mordant 10% alun on some skeins, none on the others (it’s what I had around)

Water Tap

Yarn Supersoft 575 m/100 g

Yarn:Dyestuff ratio 2:1 and similar ratios

Conclusion Lovely baby pink plus more saturated orange-pinks

Possible improvements I’d like to get more intense color with this method, and I imagine using more lichen could do the trick. But the shaking of the jars is probably just important to optimize!

All in all, I’m pleased with my first results using these types of lichens and the ammonia method. But I do think there is a lot of room for improvement. I’ll probably start some new jars soon!