The “plant” called the Iceland moss is a composite organism. This organism is technically a lichen - a composite life form made up of two symbiotic species, a distinct fungal species and an algal species, bound together in a mutually beneficial association called symbiosis. The Iceland moss can grow to a maximum of four inches in height when fully mature. The plant or algal component is the “thallus” or the plant body, that is curled, erect, and with numerous branches, with distinct spiny margins. There is a distinct coloration to the body of the Iceland moss; the upper surface is always brown in color. On the other hand, the lower or the outer surface of the moss tends to have a much lighter shade of brown or is a gray brown with dispersed white spots all over it.
The Iceland moss is just one more example of a misnomer pertaining to a plant. The fact is that the Iceland “moss” is not a moss but a species of organism called lichen found in Iceland. As with all other lichens, the Iceland moss is a composite organism formed from two distinct types of plants, one is a species of fungus and one is a species of alga - these exists in a symbiotic relationship and formed one whole organism. Neither the fungus nor the algae can exist by itself. The cells of the algae are entangled in the fungal threads and they form a close knit bond. These two species thus, live together in a mutually beneficial relationship to form one whole organism - the so called Iceland moss. The food supply needed by the Iceland moss is the responsibility of the green alga, which synthesizes food via photosynthesis. The algal makes food for itself and the fungus and this is its contribution to the paring. The fungal element in the pair is responsible for the absorption of nutrients and its retention. This water is needed by the alga in the photosynthesis process. Thus, both organisms contribute to the food supply and complement each other.
The ancient inhabitants of Iceland made use of the Iceland moss centuries ago, mainly as a remedy for different disorders of the respiratory system. The main chemical compounds found in the Iceland moss are large amounts of a type of starch called “lichenin.” When this compound is boiled, it turns into a substance resembling mucilage; this substance is particularly soothing to irritated mucous membranes that line the respiratory tract and nasal passages. Bitters present in the Iceland moss stimulate the appetite and help in dealing with digestive disorders. These beneficial effects of the Iceland moss taken along with its value as a food, is the reason for its primary use as an herbal tonic for patients convalescing from prolonged illness or injury. The Iceland moss has high amounts of carbohydrate and has at times been served as food in the colder latitudes of the world. Iceland moss has been used as a food in the cold northern European countries where many lichen species flourish alongside the Iceland moss - lichens in general are food for reindeer. People who traditionally made use of the Iceland moss as a food prepared it in a peculiar way. The boiled extract would be flavored using some wine, a little sugar, or lemon juice, to enhance palatability and taste.
The Iceland moss is still accounted as an herbal tonic and a soothing remedy for irritations affecting the respiratory tract by most modern herbalists.
The Iceland moss is a potent demulcent agent. Extracts of the Iceland moss bring soothing relief to the mucous membranes lining the cavity of the chest. The remedy helps in countering congestion, and also brings relief from dry and paroxysmal chronic coughs. The extract of the Iceland moss is particularly helpful in treating elderly people affected by various respiratory ailments. The remedy made from the Iceland moss is also very bitter in taste; this is beneficial in some way - particularly with regard to the ailments of the gut, the demulcent and bitter tonic effects of the remedy which is a unique combination of positive effects among medicinal herbs aids that are used to heal and tone the gut. Therefore, it is considered to be of great value in the treatment of many chronic digestive problems - including, chronic irritable bowel syndrome. Intestinal worm infestation is also relieved through the use of the Iceland moss. The herbal remedy is effective and gently expels worms particularly if the infestation is chronic. The Iceland moss remedy may also prove to be of great use in the treatment of certain types of digestive infections if the results of recent clinical studies in Europe are confirmed.
The high mucilage content of the Iceland moss makes it an effective and soothing demulcent remedy. The extracts of the Iceland moss are used to treat cases of gastritis, and to bring relief from vomiting and dyspepsia as well. The remedy made from the Iceland moss is also used in treating respiratory catarrh and bronchitis when other herbal treatments have failed. The Iceland moss is also used in treating cases of cachexia - which is a state of malnourishment and debility - as it is rich in nutrients and nourishing at the same time.
In Europe, the Iceland moss has been used as a cough remedy since the dawn of history, the traditional system of European folk medicine also utilized the Iceland moss in treating cancer growths and tumors. The remedial properties of the Iceland moss canter around its bitter tonic effect and its demulcent action on the gut. This combination of beneficial effects is considered to be unique among all medicinal herbs used in treating intestinal problems. Iceland moss also possess potent anti-biotic effects, it is also strongly anti-emetic, as well as being a potent demulcent herb, a galactogogue, and being nutritive with tonic effects at the same time. Consumptions of the Iceland moss aids in the treatment of disorders such as dysentery, chronic pulmonary problems and catarrh, and proves beneficial in dealing all kinds of chronic digestive disturbances - including irritable bowel syndrome and cases of food poisoning. It is also helpful in treating advanced cases of tuberculosis. The Iceland moss is also used to treat topical problems affecting the skin; the Iceland moss is excellent for dealing with boils, to quiet down vaginal discharges in women, and to alleviate impetigo affecting the skin. Iceland moss can be used fresh or dry, and is harvested whenever it is needed during the year. The best time to harvest Iceland moss is during spells of dry weather. The harvest of Iceland moss can be dried for use at a later time. The remedy made from the Iceland moss must be used with caution as it can produce some side effects.
Habitat and cultivation
Indigenous to Europe, the Iceland moss grows along the northern reaches and alpine regions in the European continent and nearby islands. The habitat preferred by the Iceland moss is a sub-Arctic and mountainous region. The plant grows on rocks and on the bark of trees in these places. The Iceland moss is especially abundant on the bark of coniferous trees. There is no particular time for harvesting the Iceland moss and it is harvested at any time in the year as and when required for remedial preparations.
Iceland moss is collected from the wild and almost no information exists about the cultivation of this plant in Europe. The Iceland moss needs clean air to grow optimally; it does not tolerate the atmospheric pollution around towns and cities and cannot be grown in such places. Its sensitivity to the air quality makes it a good indicator of changes in the environment. The Iceland moss is a very slow growing species, like most lichen in the cold northern climates - this slow rate of growth may also be related to the symbiotic association of two different species, an algae and a fungus. Commercially manufactured disinfectants often include the Iceland moss as an ingredient.
This plant can only be propagated through vegetative means. A new plant can be propagated from almost any part of the Iceland moss. A small portion containing both fungal and algal elements can be placed at a new site with suitable environment and a new plant will grow in no time at all.
Herbal decoction: This remedy can be prepared by boiling a teaspoonful of the shredded Iceland moss in water. The herb must be boiled for at least three minutes. Allow the herb to steep and infuse into the water by letting it stand for a further ten minutes - then strain and cool the decoction. One cup of this decoction can be drunk once every morning and evening as a remedy for all kinds of problems.
Collection and harvesting
Iceland moss is harvested at anytime of the year when required. The best time to harvest the Iceland moss may be between May and September, though it can be collected at other times in the year as well. The Iceland moss must be freed from all attached impurities clinging to it and then sun dried or air dried in the shade for later use.