Photo © Steven Foster
Despite the name, Iceland moss is a lichen native to the northern and alpine areas of Europe.1 Growing to 2 ½ inches, Iceland moss can be found growing in tufts on hilly and montane regions.2 Iceland moss has gray-green to dark brown branches with forked spiny projections along the margins.2
History and Cultural Significance
Lichens have a long history of use both as a medicine and food.3 The people of Iceland, Norway, Finland, Russia and Sweden mainly use Iceland moss. Ancient Europeans used the lichen as a remedy for cough. In the middle 1800’s, cultures would use the lichen as a tonic to alleviate gastrointestinal and respiratory ailments. It could also commonly be found used as a food source. Cultures would make the lichen into a flour substitute for bread recipes. The lichen was also used as a gelling agent and added to lemon, sugar, or chocolate to make candy. During the famine in the early 1800’s, Norway used the lichen as a main food source. In Russia, during World War II, the lichen was used to prepare molasses.3
Today, Iceland moss is used much less as a food source and more for its medicinal, dye and perfume properties.2 Iceland moss lozenges have also been found to provide emollient effects. The lichen contains usnic acid, as well as, other forms of lichen acids which may provide a protective effect against certain bacteria.2 European pharmacies stock Iceland moss lozenges as a laxative and tonic preparation and for the treatment of sore throats.3 Commission E also supports the use of the lichen to treat dry cough and loss of appetite.3
Scientists have investigated Iceland moss for its ability to decrease nasal irritation and dryness.3
The environmental and habitat safety of Iceland moss are of major concern.2 Currently, there is no cultivation of the lichen. Pollution and loss of habitat have noticeably affected the amount of Iceland moss found growing in the wild in many locales.2,4 All of the Iceland moss used today is harvested from the wild.2 To protect the species from further decline, research should be focused on the sustainable wildcrafting practices and potential cultivation of Iceland moss and steps should be taken to prevent further pollution.
1 Grieve M. A Modern Herbal. Vol I. New York: Dover Publications; 1971.
2 Bown D. The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd; 2001.
3 Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, editors. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Newton, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000.
4 Outola I, Pehrman R, Jaakkola T. Effect of industrial pollution on the distribution of 137Cs in soil and the soil-to-plant transfer in a pine forest in SW Finland. Sci Total Environ 2003; 303(3):221-30.