Indigenous knowledge and use of lichens by the lichenophilic communities of the Nepal Himalaya
© The Author(s). 2017
Received: 22 November 2016
Accepted: 23 January 2017
Published: 21 February 2017
The aim of the study was to document the prevailing indigenous knowledge and various uses of lichens among the lichenophilic communities in the hills and mountainous settlements of Nepal.
Ethnic uses were recorded during twelve field trips, each of roughly 15 days in three consecutive years, through direct questionnaires administered to 190 respondents. Lichen samples were identified applying microscopic observation and thin layer chromatography (TLC). Voucher specimens of identified species are deposited at TUCH (Tribhuvan University Central Herbarium) in Nepal.
Lichens are being used in several ways by different communities of Nepal. We recorded the ethnic use of seven species of lichens belonging to four families (Parmeliaceae, Physciaceae, Ramalinaceae and Usneaceae) and six genera (Heterodermia, Everniastrum, Parmotrema, Ramalina, Thamnolia and Usnea) among the Limbu, Sherpa, Lama, Gurung, Rai, Dalit, Tamang, Chhetri and Brahman communities. The present study revealed six use values namely; Medicinal value (MV), food value (FV), ritual and spiritual value (RSV), aesthetic and decorative value (ADV), bedding value (BV) and ethno-veterinary value (EVV) from different parts of Nepal. Three lichen species, Everniastrum cirrhatum, E. nepalense and Parmotrema cetratum were consumed by the Limbu and Rai communities. The Limbu and Sherpa ethnic groups are regarded as most lichenophilic communities while respondents from Brahman, Chhetri and Tamang communities showed less interest in lichen uses.
The present study contributes to document traditional knowledge on various uses of lichens among nine communities with three different cultural background, inhabitants of eight different altitudinal levels of Nepal. Regarding the six values as identified from this research, significant difference (p = <0.05) were found along altitudinal gradients or locations of the settlements, cultural groups and ethnicity of the respondents.
KeywordsEthnolichenology Use values Limbu and Sherpa ethnic groups Ethnoveterinary
Indigenous knowledge is the local knowledge inherited by indigenous and local communities that is unique to a culture or society. The scientific exploration and documentation of indigenous knowledge on wild resources are important tools to understand traditional living and food systems of local inhabitants . It is estimated that globally, around one billion people consume wild foods in their diet  among them wild plants play a crucial role in the subsistence strategy of rural communities in developing countries . Lichens are being used in traditional foods and medicines since millenia and also play vital roles in ecosystem function and human welfare . During the mid eighteenth century, regular crops were badly affected in Europe by frosts and droughts causing famine, and as a consequence, lichens were used for food because of their easy availability, cheapness and nutritive value . Most of the lichens are non-poisonous although some exceptions exist. Letharia vulpina, Cetraria pinastri, Bryoria fremontii and B. tortuosa are well known poisonous lichens contain vulpinic acid or pinastrinic acid [6, 7].
Nepal, though a small landlocked country with an area of 147,181 sq. km possesses a diverse socio-cultural heritage with 125 ethnic groups living in five physiographic regions starting from 60 m to 8,848 m from above sea level . The topographic, climatic and ecological diversity makes this area a habitat where Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) are of great importance to local ethnic groups, contributing towards food security, local economy, traditional health care practices, and cultural values . Forests provide on-site ecological benefits and/or services to the local communities and each community utilizes those services in different ways and practices .
Several publications have documented the inventory and ethnic uses of higher plants from different regions and among various tribes of Nepal [11, 12]. In contrast, the lichen flora and traditional utilization patterns and market potentiality of lichens has hardly been explored. A total of 792 species belonging to 187 genera of lichen-forming fungi have been reported from Nepal  but many lichen species have yet to be discovered . While documenting indigenous knowledge on uses of higher plants, respondents also mentioned lichens, but lichens were not identified to the species level [15–18]. Uses of lichens particularly among the Limbu, Rai and Sherpa ethnic groups, inhabitants of Eastern part of Nepal has been highlighted in a few studies [19–22]. Here, we document indigenous knowledge on the values of lichens for various uses in different communities from three mountainous districts of Nepal.
The Nubri and Tsum Valleys of Gorkha District (N28°28′35.0178″, E84°41′23.1″) located in Manaslu Conservation Area from Western part were selected as transition zone between Eastern and Western Himalayas. Scientifically, this area is poorly explored and less is known about biodiversity or social and cultural aspects from this valley because of its remoteness. In Gorkha, the VDCs of Lapu, Uiya, Sirdibas, Bihi, Prok, Samagaun, Chumchet, and Chekampar were visited. Gurung, Chhetri, and Sherpa are the main indigenous dwellers in this area.
Field survey and data collection
Questionnaire used for the collectors
From where do you collect Jhyauu?
During which months do you collect these Jhyauu?
Which family members are involved in collection of Jhyauu?
What type of forest you prefer to go for the collection?
What amount do you normally collect in a day?
How do you collect, dry and store?
What are the collecting tools?
What are the uses of Jhyauu? Medicine (veterinary/human health or others)
How do you prepare medicine and use them?
What are additional uses? Others – poisonous, edible, rituals, incense, etc. (in details)
How can we minimize the poisonous nature of Jhyauu so that they can be suitable to eat? (If poisonous and used as medicine)
Is the available amount of Jhyauu sufficient for your local demand?
Has the need of Jhyauu increased over the past couple of years?
Is the amount of easy accessible Jhayuu stable over the years?
If not, can you compensate the decline of Jhayuu by accessing more remote areas?
Does quality of Jhyauu matter?, which are the quality criteria other than species?
Are these Jhyauu occurring widely in your area? Specification: Rare/common/abundant
Have you marked any type of Jhyauu eaten by animals or used by animals and birds for their nest?
Do you know about rule and regulation of Jhyauu?
Others, if any?
Frequently seen and field-identified species were listed and unidentified species were brought to the laboratory of Central Department of Botany, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal for the identification. In Nubri and Tsum Valleys, the interviews with older people from the Sherpa ethnic group were carried out in Bhotia dialect with the help of a local translator. In Chekampar, Nile and Chuley settlements of Tsum Valley and Olangchung Gola settlement in Taplejung, the semi-structured interviews were carried out for about 15 min in the evenings when the locals had finished their daily work. Phungling, a district headquarters and also the gateway of district is the main commercial hub of Taplejung. Lichen specimens being sold in weekly markets were collected for identification.
To calculate the statistical significance of differences between uses and variables characterizing the local population (location, age group, sex, caste and ethnicity), Pearson’s Chi-squared test (χ 2) was applied  using the statistical software R .
The lichen specimens were identified by studying morphology, anatomy and lichen substances. Specimens were brought to the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Switzerland where chemical substances were identified with standard thin-layer chromatography (TLC) techniques [28, 29]. Identified specimens were stored in the Tribhuvan University Central Herbarium (TUCH), Kirtipur, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Demographic characteristics of the informants
A total of 190 informants (87 male and 103 female) representing seven age groups (<12, 13–24, 25–35, 36–47, 48–59, 60–71, >72 years), nine communities (Brahman, Chhetri, Dalit, Gurung, Lama, Limbu, Rai, Sherpa and Tamang), and three cultural backgrounds (Buddhism, Hindu, Kiraat) from eight altitudinal levels (≤1000 m, 1000–1400 m, 1400–1800 m, 1800–2200 m, 2200–2600 m, 2600–3000 m, 3000–3400 m and ≥3400 m) were approached (Additional file 1). Of the total 190 informants, 82% (N = 156) know at least a single use of lichens or have heard about their uses. These 156 respondents were interviewed in detail using the semi-structured questionnaires.
Vernacular names used by indigenous people of Nepal for lichen species
Thallus organization or species
Caste or language
Look like stars
No specific meaning
No specific meaning
On tree trunk
On marshy habitat
Shingbal, Ser Kue, Thangbu, Balteb
Collection was started after the end of monsoon period, i.e., August - November. People from the eastern parts of Nepal were familiar with the uses of lichens since long ago, though this use has not been documented scientifically. Personal communication with a key informant (Mr. Bharat Limbu, age 61), from Tapethok Village, Taplejung recalled his early days and mentioned that his grandfather was also collecting Yangben for food. The collection of lichens was found to be crucial in the lower belt of Taplejung, where most of the households collect lichens which form important parts of their diet during Dashain, Tihar and Maghey Sankrati festivals. Collectors collect in nearby forests after lunch (around 9 AM) and spend around 6–8 h for the collection. Usually at least two people often of the same family, or close neighbors work together for the collection. Children and adults, both males and females, participate in the collection. Even students collect lichens while returning home after their school as they pass through forests or pastures. In our sites, mostly they used hand and sometimes stick to pick up lichens from the substratum. Lichens are collected in a sack or plastic bag. Once returned home, they removed unwanted lichens, and litter.
Uses of lichens
Lichen species used by nine ethnic communities for different use values
RSV, BV, ADV
Lichens and ethno-medicines
Significant of difference among use values and respondents with different demographic characters
χ 2 value
Ritual and spiritual
χ 2 value
χ 2 value
Aesthetic and decorative
χ 2 value
χ 2 value
χ 2 value
Lichens in Nepalese cuisine
Everniastrum cirrhatum, E. nepalense and Parmotrema cetratum were much preferred species and found to be sold in local weekly markets in the district headquarter of Taplejung. Our study found that since the last 5–7 years, the demand for edible lichens is rising, especially from abroad. Thousands of Rai and Limbu families from Eastern part of Nepal are living abroad (mainly in UK and Hongkong) and they want to taste lichen during their festivals. Lichens are also considered as the best gift item in such communities.
Ritual, spiritual and aesthetic values
Thamnolia vermicularis was used on the belief that this lichen wards off evil spirit and maintains peace at home and among family members. Respondents kept a handful of lichens above the main entrance of a house. Twenty two respondents (male 10, female 13) from six villages (Hangdewa 1, Lelep 1, Linkhim 2, Phurumbu 3, Tapethok 4 and Olangchung Gola 12) of Taplejung District used this lichen. Such practice was common among the Buddhist and Kirant cultural groups. Similarly, people of Olangchung Gola and Ghunsa used Usnea longissima to clean religious cups like butter lamps (Diyo in Nepali) and water bowls made of silver. With wet U. longissima, pots are scrubbed to remove stains.
Usnea longissima and Thamnolia vermicularis were used as ingredients in incense powder mainly by the Sherpa (N = 30) and Lama (N = 11) ethnic groups, residing in Olangchung Gola, Ghunsa and Tsum valleys. They mixed these dried lichens with dried leaves of Juniperus indica, J. squamata, Rhododendron anthopogon, R. decorum, R. lepidotum and roots of Jurinea dolomiaea. They burn incense powder during their morning pray and religious ceremonies which releases pleasant and fragrant smoke.
Usnea longissima, an abundant, long thread-like lichen, was used for decoration by 17 respondents. This was being practiced among the Sherpa community of Olangchung Gola settlement of Kangchenjunga Conservation Area. The lichen was collected fresh and either framed making different shapes (designs) or simply hangs around in a room. Similarly, 16 respondents of Olangchung Gola, two hoteliers from Khumjung and one hotelier at Namche, Solukhumbu District were using fallen branches of trees with different species of lichens for the decoration in a corner of reception desks.
Lichens and animal husbandry
One local healer and two respondents from Chekampar, Gorkha District, mentioned about the uses of lichens as an antiseptic and healing agents against external injuries in cattle. Heterodermia diademata is powdered and applied externally on fresh cuts and wounds. A local healer (Mr. Dorje Lundup Lama, age 68, personal communication) got this knowledge from his father and he believed this practice has been developed by observing practice of rubbing wounds on a stone by injured sheeps. Surprisingly, this information was not found in other research areas.
Usnea longissima is used as bedding materials for colt, chick, newly born goats and yak calves mainly by herders. Twenty-one respondents (male = 10, female = 11), from three Districts (Solukhumbu = 3, Gorkha = 6, Taplejung = 12), from three altitudinal levels (2600–3000 m = 2, 3000–3400 m = 17, ≥3400 = 2) collected about 200 kg (in average 9.5 kg per collector) of lichens in one season for this purpose. Interestingly, it was not used as bedding materials for human and rarely used as stuffing material for pillow, for reasons being unknown.
Nepal is a multicultural country with 125 casts and ethnic groups and most of the caste/ethnic groups are spread throughout the 75 Districts of the Nepal . They have their own ethnoecological knowledge and understanding regarding the surrounding environment and plant resources . One plant may have several vernacular names. From this study, we have summarized 21 vernacular names which are used in different parts of Nepal. Among them, Maangmaa, Myann and Lunhokya from Dudhkunda valley, Sagarmatha are new additions. Lama et al.  reported seven vernacular names from Dolpa District, trans-Himalayan zone of Western Nepal in Himali Bhotia and Kham dialects (Table 2). Forest Regulations  has quoted lichens as Budhani and Jhyauu. So far, Budhani is not known as lichen by any ethnic names and in the literature published on lichens from Nepal [13, 32–44]. All the respondents in the studied areas mentioned Jhyauu for lichens and they have heard this name from their ancestors. So, here, we recommend using only a term Jhyauu rather than Budhani in the future. In an earlier publication by , Thamnolia vermicularis was mentioned as Xylaria sp. fungus from Dolpa, Nepal. This must be corrected in future studies. During our study, it was found that the vernacular name Dankini Chyau is the local name for lichens, but in contrary here Chyau means mushroom. So, it must be spelled as Dankini Jhyauu.
We have found that the Limbu ethnic group from Taplejung District is fond of preparing lichen soup, pickles, and sausages of Everniastrum cirrhatum, E. nepalense, and Parmotrema cetratum. The traditional knowledge how Limbu people prepare sausages with pig intestine, lichens and pig blood is unique. There are a few more lichen species around the globe which are used to prepare soup. Some major reports are Cetraria islandica , Umbilicaria mammulata , U. muhlenbergii , Bryoria fremontii . Cetraria islandica, sold as “Iceland Moss” in the Scandinavian countries, is reported to be first lichen food for human beings, where lichen was mixed with grain flour to prepare bread, porridge, salads and several other local foods .
Traditionally, lichens are used to prepare indigenous foods, medicine, beverages, dyes, spices, decorations, animal feed and perfumes among different cultures across the world [4, 5, 14, 48–51]. In India, Everniastrum cirrhatum is used as holy material for sacrificial fire in ceremonies and also being used as spice and flavoring agent for vegetables and meats . Similar use of lichens in India to prepare incense powder was also reported  without giving species and incense ingredients details.
Lethariella cashmeriana, L. sernanderi, L. sinensis, Thamnolia vermicularis, and T. subuliformis are used to prepare tea in the Yunnan Province of China , and Cladonia rangiferina in the Northern Hemisphere . However, in the present study, we did not find such reports/publications from the field and published literature on Nepalese lichens. We have found substantial use of Heterodermia diademata in our research areas against cuts and wounds. This information is also matched by the information given by Saklani and Upreti  where they have mentioned about the uses of H. diademata in India among the Nepalese living in Gangtok (Sikkim) for cuts and to heal wounds. H. diademata together with Eupatorium odoratum for the treatment of fresh wound and cuts was reported among Limbu community of eastern Nepal . In traditional herbal therapeutic practice in Far-western Nepal, lichen extract and decoction were applied to treat moles .
Thamnolia vermicularis is also used as antiseptic in Western Himalayas to kill buttermilk borne worms . Uses of T. vermicularis among mountainous Sherpa community are more common than in the midhills communities. Usnea sp. are used as bedding materials and stuffing materials for the pillow and alternatively as mattresses at seasonal camps [58, 59], as we found in our sites.
There were no publications from Nepal reporting the uses of lichens with an ethno-veterinary purpose prior to this research, though there are few publications on uses of higher plants for the same purpose [60–63]. The use of Usnea barbata for the treatment of mammary infection in cattle is also reported from Xhosa, South Africa .
It was estimated that about 7,800 to 9,200 t lichens are collected to manufacture perfume in Morocco, Yugoslavia and France . The uses of lichens to make dyes dates back to more than 3,500 years . Many lichen species such as Bryoria fremontii, Everniastrum cirrhatum, Letharia vulpina, Ochrolechia oregonensis, O. tartarea, Parmelia omphalodes, Parmotrema nilgherrensis, Rocella spp., and others have been used as natural dyes from different parts of the World [5, 48, 67, 68]. We didn’t find such ethno-lichenological knowledge in our research area, although local women from Olangchung Gola, Ghunsa, Dudhkunda, Khumbu, Samagaun and Tsum valleys were active on weaving carpets using mixture of natural and synthetic dyes for the coloring of sheep wool.
Anthropogenic factors such as the unsustainable harvest and mismanagement in collection procedure of lichens at a large scale mainly to cover trade demands may reduce and threaten genetic resources. First of all, underlying mechanisms and processes of the lichens’ occurrence and dynamics should be understood so that suitable conservation strategies designed and recommendations for sustainable harvest can be made [69–71]. Epiphytic lichens play a crucial role in ecosystem functioning and structural complexity . Environment Protection Act 1996 and Environment Protection Act Regulations 1997 have made Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) or Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) mandatory in collection of selected plant species including lichen species in Appendix 1a, Article 8 . A thorough analysis shows that IEA and EIA guidelines to reduce degradation of the environment are not followed by a larger group of people in the country due to lack of implementation and monitoring . High-elevation lichens are also facing a significant threat due to climate change . For epiphytic species with a high commercial value and demand such as Everniastrum cirrhatum, E. nepalense and Parmotrema cetratum future studies could test if in-situ culture techniques could support the production of substantial volumes of biomass for commercial harvest under climate change scenarios. Further, regular monitoring and certification system or ‘ecolabelling’ may improve sustainable harvesting systems .
The present study reveals that lichens are of great interest as foods, traditional medicines or therapeutic values, aesthetic and spiritual values to the local inhabitants of different regions of Nepal. There is a long tradition of using lichens among the lichenophilic communities residing in the eastern mountainous parts of Nepal. Collection, consumption and marketing of lichens in sustainable ways would lead to long-term availability of these resources. Thus, it is recommended to carry out further research on abundance, stock estimation and collection impact on economically and socially important species.
Aesthetic and decorative value
Central Department of Botany
Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation
Environmental impact assessment
Initial environmental examination
Kangchenjunga Conservation Area Committee
Non-timber forest products
Ritual and spiritual value
Thin layer chromatography
Tribhuvan University Central Herbarium
Village Development Committees
We are thankful to Central Department of Botany, Tribhuvan University, Nepal and Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Switzerland for their supportive roles in taxonomic identification and administrative support. We are thankful to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, Government of Nepal and Kangchenjunga Conservation Area Committee (KCAC) for the permission to conduct research, and to the people of the studied areas for their cooperation and for sharing their traditional knowledge. Prof. Krishna Kumar Shrestha CDB is thankful for the fruitful discussions. We are also thankful to Sanjeev Kumar Rai, Jyoti Prasad Gajurel, Laxmi Sankhi, Til Bikram Chongbang and Hem Bahadur Katuwal for their support and to Kamal Maden for sharing his knowledge and providing a picture of sausage prepared with lichens.
This research was funded by The Swiss National Science Foundation, Switzerland (grant JRP IZ70Z0_131338/1) to C. Scheidegger.
Availability of data and materials
SD and CS carried out the field work. CS identified lichens. SD analyzed the data and prepared the draft manuscript. CS, SW and RPC supervised the research and critically reviewed manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Consent for publication
Ethics approval and consent to participate
Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.
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