Wolf lichen (Letharia vulpina) is a toxic lichen. Wolf lichen is a yellow-green fungus that grows on trees and rocks. People often confuse this lichen with moss which it is not. Wolf lichen grows on incense cedar bark. It grows mostly in the boreal forests. For the Native Americans, it was an important dye used in making paints. Different tribes also used it to make poison arrowheads. Other tribes like the Blackfoot and Okanagan-Colville used a weak tea made from it for treating sicknesses inside the body.
The range of wolf lichen is the Pacific Northwest, the Rocky Mountains and the western part of Europe and its interior. It will not grow in freezing temperatures. However, frost does not kill it. It just stops growing until the temperature warms up. It grows in older conifer forests at tree line. Wolf lichen is extremely sensitive to air pollution and will not grow in polluted areas. It grows on dead or dying trees and stumps. It prefers sunny sides of trees and rocks. It usually does not grow well in coastal rain forests.
Vulpinic acid comes from this fungus. Wolves and foxes especially die from this plant. The poison only affects meat-eaters, rodents and rabbits do not feel its effects. Powdered lichen inserted in a prey carcass will kill any mammal that eats it. Farmers mixed the powder with powdered glass and let the wolves eat it. When they did, the glass made insertions in the flesh that allowed it to get into the blood stream.
The Klamath Indians dyed porcupine quills yellow. They made the yellow quills into baskets. The Chilkat Tlingit tribe of Alaska used wolf lichen to dye their blankets yellow. The Apache treasured it as a type of protection painting their feet with it as they walked into enemy territory. This lichen was very valuable to the Indian tribes. To get wolf lichen, the Indians would trade shells and valuable trinkets for it.
Some people like the idea of having the beauty of the wolf lichen nearby. It is possible to grow it. By using natural ingredients and remembering that wolf lichen does not like rain, a person can grow it with little effort. Start with a mixture of flour and milk to stabilize the fungi. Add yeast, a fertilizer and gelatin to a pot and heat it until boiling. Use it within two days. Apply the liquid mixture along with lichen powder and soil to a branch or rock. After two days, the mixture with turn black. That’s okay. After two years, the fungus will form.
Letharia vulpina is not sexual and always grows in conjunction with algae. A funny saying that helps remember is “Freddie Fungus found Alice Algae and now their marriage is on the rocks.” This fungi grows as little as 1 centimeter or as large as twelve centimeters. It always has many branches.